Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Friday, 8 March 2013

"ice cream" by Helen Dunmore (Penguin, 2000)

According to a review snippet on the back cover, "Her usual themes are here: loneliness, love, weather, landscapes - and food. The first 2 stories were very tame. "You Stayed Awake with Me" has more that I'd expect to see in a story

  • "It's possible that there were things I taught Janet too, but I don't remember them. Once we saw a dead porpoise, with words carved into his flesh" (p.28). But how did they know it was male? And what were the words?
  • "She sounded plaintive, just as she sounded when she made a chicken pie and there was half of it left over" (p.34)

"The Fag" is minor (3 pages). "Leonardo, Michelangelo, Superstork" is Atwood-style SF, set in a world where natural conception is punishable by the baby's death. The story doesn't get much beyond its premise. Near the middle of "The Lighthouse Keeper's wife" are 2 pages that change our attitude to the couple - attention turns from the isolated, vertical lighthouse to the horizontal, rigid wife. "Be Vigilant, Rejoice, Eat Plenty" is minor; both "The Clear and Rolling Water" and "Living Out" are better. In "Mason's Mini-break" an author becomes source material for a minor character in another author's novel, but there's a twist. "Salmon" is way too slight.

I liked "The Icon Room" - detail of the external world and the inner life of the main character are more extensive. In the following, the character's at a hotel table when a man interrupts her reading

'Resurrection. Miracle. Not believing ...' murmurs the man, running his finger down the page. The stiff curls of the carnation are becoming sodden. Ulli fishes the flowers out of its spilled water, and rubs it against her lips. Resurrection. She feels two stocky white candles crossed like a pair of scissors against her throat. She is a child who gets tonsillitis over and over. Her sickness mars winter after winter. her grandmother takes her to church on the feast of St Blaise, to be blessed. The candles cross like cake tongs, like kitchen scissors, like instruments for probing wounds. Their dense cold waxiness appals her. But she will never move away. It is like the whiskeriness of her grandfather's kiss. You must accept these things, to show love. The candles are stocky and blunt. They will not hurt anyone. Now she smells the dank flower-water and feels the dullness of petals against her lips. Her tonsillitis went on for years (p.129)

"Coosing" is pretty good (the verb coosing means "going", but the related noun means something coarser). Both "The Kiwi-fruit Arbour" and "Emily's Ring" delay an important piece of information ("people who are 'exceptionally gifted', and win scholarships to study in Paris" (p.177), and "They know my own mother gave me my ring when I was seven, the same age as Margaret. That was the year she died" (p.187)). "Swimming into the Millennium" is minor. "Lisette" is telly, but ok.

So there are 2 or 3 good stories. Too many of the others make do with one worthwhile feature - a little twist, a passage of observation, or a sudden rounding of character - instead of making each paragraph count. Slices of life sliced too thin.

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