’The strongest thing I believe about fiction is that it requires two to come forward. It’s a very deep form of play’
The entire back wall of Helen Dunmore’s tiny studio-cum-office – eight floors up in a neat block of flats on Bristol’s northern slopes – is given over to a glass door, leading on to a strip of balcony. Underneath, the city’s streets, parks and houses roll out all the way to the feet of the hills on the skyline. It is, Dunmore says, “a lovely place to write. I know authors who say they can’t work unless they’re facing a blank wall; they find the external world too distracting. But I like the reminder that it’s all out there.”
The analogy of the all-seeing novelist is hard to resist: Dunmore perched on high, peering down into the lives playing out below. But such aesthetic distance has no place in her novels. The worlds she creates are urgent and intimate; she talks about her characters as if they were close friends, constantly steering the conversation back to them, like a proud parent, or a lover.
“History leaves so much out,” said the novelist JG Farrell, when asked why he liked to write books about the past. “It leaves out the most important thing: the detail of what being alive is like.” It’s in this detail, above all, that Dunmore revels.
In her latest novel, The Betrayal (a sequel to 2001’s The Siege), she transports us to another port city, Leningrad, and sinks us deep into the oppressive heart of it. The novel opens in 1952 in the months leading up to Stalin’s death; while the atmosphere in the city is fractionally less paranoid than during the purges and executions of the Great Terror, its citizenry remains watchful, overwound. In The Siege, set 10 years earlier during the deadly Leningrad blockade, Dunmore set out a world of shrinking horizons. The frontiers of the characters’ lives were pulled back and back: to the city’s limits, the walls of an apartment, a single, icy room, a spoonful of honey measured on to a five-year-old’s tongue. Fear pulses from the pages, but while cold and hunger slaughtered Leningraders in their thousands, these dangers were at least clearly visible: a decade on, the adversaries are just as terrifying, but harder to pin down. Andrei, a paediatrician, lives with his teacher-wife Anna (Dunmore herself trained as a teacher) and Anna’s younger brother, Kolya – the five-year-old of The Siege, now a bumptious teenager. Together, they’ve constructed a life of more-or-less blameless obscurity, but their peace is shattered when Andrei is called on to treat the son of Volkov, a senior secret police operative. Andrei and Anna find themselves plunged into a tenebrous zone in which logic and truth have no currency, and where their fate depends on the progress of disease in a young boy’s body. While the world appears to have opened out from the narrow limits imposed by the blockade, Dunmore reveals that in many ways it remains just as constrained: there is no safety except within the walls of one’s own apartment, and even there, the enemy can enter if he chooses.
Dunmore’s great skill as a novelist is to swoop down from the historian’s eyrie from which everything looks ordered, familiar, sanitised by the passage of time, and plunge into the interior of daily lives. In one of The Betrayal’s most effective and affecting scenes, we see Anna after a brutal encounter with the secret police, leaning over her sink in despair, but at the same time noting that “the tap has a crust of dirt around the bottom. You can’t see it from above . . . she must clean more thoroughly.” “That to me is what people are really like,” Dunmore says. “We’re never thinking a dreadful or exalted thought without a more mundane one coupled to it. Our essential everyday identity is still humming along.”
Her style isn’t to everyone’s taste. While Stevie Davies called The Siege a masterpiece, and Antony Beevor, writing in the Times, labelled it “a world-class novel”, the Observer’s reviewer, Michael Williams, wasn’t sold, dismissing the domestic arena through which she parses the agonies of the blockade as a “mum’s-eye view”, “less Tolstoyan than suburban”. Dunmore refuses to apologise. “The wars of the 20th century engulfed millions of civilians,” she says, briskly. “There’s no superior legitimacy in writing about them from a military point of view. Look at Sarajevo; look at the Iraqi children, dead because of inadequate medical supplies: it’s on their pulses war is fought. I wanted to write a novel where people would feel an engagement with the subject – not that this was something strange and far off, which could only ever have happened in another country. I feel very passionately that it is not only legitimate to write about these people, but absolutely vital.”
Dunmore didn’t start out as a novelist. Born in Beverley, Yorkshire, in 1952 – the year in which The Betrayal is set – she was a poet first, if no longer foremost. The poetry was there, she says, “from earliest childhood”; after studying English at York University, she began to publish in her early 20s “and things went quite well. I began to think I could be a poet in the public world.” She’s undeniably better-known these days for her fiction, but the poetry has remained a constant; her most recent collection, Glad of These Times, came out in 2007, and last month she won the £5,000 National Poetry Competition for her poem “The Malarkey”, submitted on impulse at the last minute, which judge Ruth Padel described as “completely arresting”. “I was surprised by how moving it was, to win,” Dunmore says. “The anonymity is the most powerful thing” – the poems are submitted without names. “It completely circumvents the idea of reputation. So I was delighted.”
“The Malarkey” is a disquieting little poem: short, taut; its clipped lines speaking of emotions rigidly held in check. Written in an implicating second-person, it tells the story of children (the makers of “the malarkey” of the title) who are “gone”.
Whether their disappearance is down to the passage of time it’s hard to tell – but the stanza that reads “You fed them cockles soused in vinegar, / you took them on the machines. / You looked away just once . . .” suggests something more sinister.
Dunmore (herself a mother of two) seems to find the possibility of such a loss magnetic: she revisits it repeatedly in her work. In Mourning Ruby, a couple are haunted by the death of their only daughter; in With Your Crooked Heart, an infidelity within a tangled marriage drives a mother to drink and to the loss of her child. In A Spell of Winter, the impossibility of a baby lies at the shadowy centre of a skewed sibling relationship. In The Siege and The Betrayal, both Anna and Andrei are professionally involved with children, but much of The Betrayal focuses on their want of, and desire for, a child of their own. Why? “Well . . .” Dunmore hesitates for a long time, finally settling on a tangential, academic answer. “When I was a teenager, the women writers I admired were the Brontës, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf. The message seemed to be that if you were a woman you might possibly write something fine – but that there was something disabling about the production of children. And I wondered, was this true? That you had to cut yourself off from the whole domestic, child-populated world?”
he pauses, changes tack. “I don’t think any writer knows for certain where the charge for their work comes from. People have asked, about ’The Malarkey’, what’s the meaning? And it’s impossible for me to say. To me, the point of a poem becoming a poem or a novel becoming a novel is, if it’s powerful enough, it doesn’t need me at its side – and in fact, the less I say, the better. The strongest thing I believe about fiction is that it requires two to come forward. It’s a very deep form of play.”
Wars, repressive regimes and a trail of dead infants: you’d be forgiven for thinking that Dunmore doesn’t offer much in the way of fun and games. But a large part of her brilliance as a writer is in the way she offsets harrowing issues with a deep, sensual attention to the material world. Food is a particular source of delight. She’s said in the past that “to write of food with love is the most innocent of pornographies”, and there’s something irresistibly voluptuous about her descriptions of “lamb . . . meltingly tender and succulent”, “forkfuls of trout flesh dip[ped] into foaming butter”, “jam syrup slid[ing] over tongue, palate, throat”. “I like writing about food,” she nods. “I find the way a character eats their breakfast very telling. These things reveal your appetites: if you’re with someone who will shovel down a bowl of soup while reading, without tasting it, that’s interesting. Fiction in which people seem unaware of the sensory world which envelops them – after a while, I feel baffled by it; it’s too thin. Read Updike, and you know his characters are in their bodies, with all their embarrassments and follies. Dickens, too: you’re very aware of the physical essence. And Woolf, although she’s so ambivalent about it.”
Dunmore didn’t publish her first novel, Zennor in Darkness, until 1993, when she was 40. “I’d published short stories and books for children by then, but Zennor was my first adult novel. It’s hard to work out why I left it so late. I did write a couple of novels in my mid-20s, which fortunately stayed far back in the drawer . . . They weren’t good enough, and I knew it. But in my mid-30s, I was working on a short story. I made a few quick decisions about it and I suddenly thought, it’s happening, I’ve taken off the brakes. I’d had that with the poetry, but with prose I’d always somehow felt as if I were standing in my own way. I knew it wouldn’t be about me, because I’d done that with those two novels in my 20s. I wanted to write about a particular person, a particular time, a particular place.”
The person, it turned out, was DH Lawrence, the time and place Cornwall during the first world war. Zennor in Darkness deals with the period from 1916-17 during which Lawrence and his German wife, Frieda, rented a cottage on a clifftop on the Cornish coast. The setting was idyllic, but the experience was, by all accounts, extremely trying: Lawrence, who was writing Women in Love, may or may not have been having a relationship with a nearby farmer; the couple were persecuted by the locals, and finally ousted by the armed forces on account of Frieda’s suspicious heritage. “Lawrence always fascinated me,” Dunmore explains. “I’ve read pretty much everything he’s written. He’s like Updike in a way: that ability to just put things down, so that they’re so present you can walk around it.”
Did it take chutzpah, to put words in the mouth of one of her literary heroes? Not really, she says: their story needed to be told. “We know the bare bones of what happened – but what was it like for him and Frieda in this landscape? The details intrigued me: Lawrence creating a garden, growing things like salsify, getting in tons of manure. He knew how to do practical things – the ironing, the washing – and his combination of day-to-day good sense and the life of the mind fascinated me. I felt there were some interesting things about that particular period and about what turned him against England.”
Happily, the judges of the McKitterick prize (given to a first novel by an author over 40) agreed. Dunmore won it, Penguin immediately offered her a two-book deal, and after that the fiction, which had taken so long to surface, poured forth – a novel annually for the next four years. Her third, A Spell of Winter, which she wrote while pregnant with her daughter, won the first Orange prize in 1996: it was with this book (for which she returned again to the first world war, this time with a gripping tale of incest and insanity) that she emerged on the literary scene properly.
“It was a great boost to me, no two ways about it,” Dunmore acknowledges, now. “The attention was hugely helpful.” And there was plenty of that: the Orange prize has made headlines throughout its 15-year duration, but in that first year, it was barely ever out of them, criticised on the one hand as exclusive, on the other as a retrograde step. Was Dunmore concerned about being at the centre of the storm; about having her gender called so publicly to attention? “I was extremely pleased! I’ll tell you what impressed me about it: having set it up, the people behind it approached it with such industry and dedication.
Had they done it in a half-hearted way I think it would have fizzled out, but they didn’t. It was a huge vote of confidence.” As to the controversy, she remains unfazed. “I’ve noticed there’s a lot of controversy about all prizes. We have our social rituals and literary prizes are one of them.”
Her most recent prize shortlisting, in 2006, was for the Nestlé Smarties book prize for children’s fiction, with The Tide Knot, the second volume in a quartet of children’s novels set, like Zennor, on the glittering, mysterious Cornish coast. The move into adult fiction in no way derailed her desire to write for children; in fact, she says, “It’s something that’s actually become more important in the last half-dozen years. Children are a completely different audience, and I enjoy that. There’s something about the way they devour books that’s wonderful; you don’t get many fans of adult fiction sending you beautiful drawings of your characters. And it frees you to layer on the suspense and narrative drama – to create lots of worlds, real and unreal, and move into them. But at the same time, it’s just the same as adult fiction in terms of the emotions. It’s not milk and water.”
All these different disciplines – fiction, poetry, short stories (she’s published four collections to date), children’s novels – do they come from the same place? “I see them as connected but different: I know this is a novel and this is a poem, or a short story. How and why I’m not sure, but it’s always blindingly clear. Poetry is the most different, because poems use all the musical properties of language – but on the other hand, working as a poet has definitely helped me with the pacing in my novels. I’m very much one for the grip, the pull-through, that narrative energy and propulsion, and I think poetry teaches you about that.”
Her National Poetry Competition win has paved the way, after a four-year hiatus, for a new collection. “I had a period of writing very little poetry that worked, in part because of the death of my father four years ago,” Dunmore says. “My early passion for poetry came through him, and with his death, I think I probably needed to take a couple of steps back. But now there’s a nucleus there; it’s beginning to form. I’ve noticed, in the course of a writing life, that sometimes it’s better to wait than to force the issue. This idea that people must be producing all the time can be a terrible burden. That’s something from which working in several forms releases you. It takes off the pressure.”
See online: A life in writing: Helen Dunmore