Two weeks ago, I woke to the sad news that one of my favourite authors had died. She had dealt with her illness privately and with courage, which meant that many of her readers may have been as shocked as me at the news. Helen Dunmore was just 64 when she died. Much too young.
I first came across Helen’s novels about 10 years ago. I think A Spell of Winter was my introduction to her beautifully crafted writing. Since then I have read many more and marvelled at every one. What’s more, on a visit to the London Book Fair in 2014, I was delighted to discover Helen being interviewed in the PEN Literary Salon, talking about her latest book.
Her writing is meticulously researched so that the reader is immersed in the setting and the period. She quite literally takes you on a journey back in time and you feel as though you have met the characters and experienced the hardship and challenges they face.
For anyone who hasn’t yet explored Helen’s writing, I have provided a flavour of her work here, by taking a look at the last couple of novels I’ve read and given a taster of one I have on my reading pile still to look forward to.
The Siege – first published 2001
This is a harrowing tale, describing the siege of Leningrad in 1941. The novel describes the bigger picture of how the second world war affected the lives of Russians, while focusing in on the desperate daily tragedies the German blockade inflicted on them.
Some of the images that Dunmore conjures up, of families being so hungry they boil shoe leather to make soup, stayed with me long after I turned the last page.
‘Everyone now knows what it takes to keep life in a body. You can be separated from your life so easily. It might happen in the street, or in the bread queue, while you’re typing or while you’re sleeping. You can die from a cold, an ear infection, or a miscarriage. If you have a stomach ulcer it will open and bleed. You can die so casually these days.’
The House of Orphans – first published 2006
The House of Orphans is set in Finland in 1902. It tells the story of Eeva, an orphaned girl who is sent to a country orphanage when her father dies. But Eeva has a strong will and steadily battles against the challenges that her impoverished life throws at her.
Eeva has never forgotten her children friend, Lauri, who is now caught up in the resistance movement. Lauri is drawn into terrorism as he joins others to fight against the attempts of Russia to impose its rule on Helsinki. But Eeva shows him that there is another way of living, that it’s possible to live with hope in your heart, rather than hatred.
‘There would be no next, he knew that now. Not for him. Whatever it took to make a people’s martyr, he hadn’t got it. They had shown him photographs of a row of dangling men. But when he looked closer there were women as well. They had their skirts tied at the ankles, for decency.
He would go away, with Eeva. They did not have to stay here. He had never thought he would really leave his country for ever, but then he’d never felt like this before. It seemed to him that the sun had stopped shining on his life here. He was living in an eclipse. If he stayed, nothing lay ahead of him but weariness and risk and a long blunder through darkness towards a goal that he wasn’t even sure he wanted to reach.’
The Lie – first published in 2014
In The Lie Helen returns to the first world war, but this time the setting is Cornwall, where a young man remembers his experiences in the trenches.
I have yet to read this novel, but the Guardian says of this book:
‘The Lie is a fine example of Dunmore’s ability to perceive the long vistas of history in which the dead remain restless…It is a book in which ghosts, perhaps, remain imaginary: but they are none the less real for that.’
And the Times Literary Supplement says:
‘The Lie is a substantial work, and Dunmore is able to crystallize tragedy in a simple sentence.’
What is evident from all of Dunmore’s novels is that she is doing so much more than telling a story. She is allowing us to see these periods of history through her eyes, eyes that are sharp and wise, and through her beautifully crafted prose.
She has received many plaudits, winning the McKitterick Prize, the Orange Prize and the TS Eliot Prize, and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize for The Betrayal in 2010. As well as 15 novels, Helen Dunmore has written many children’s books, young adult books and poetry.
Helen Dunmore was taken from us too soon, but she will continue to live on in her writing and in the minds of her readers. I, for one, am grateful for that.