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Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore (thoughts)

September 19, 2014

Talking to the Dead

Carl throws the best challenges, and the ninth edition of R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril, which reminds us all to devote our autumnal reading towards scaring ourselves silly, is currently running. I haven’t officially signed up yet, as the move soaked up all of my free time, but when I approached my unpacked books yesterday, looking for a good one to start, I had it in the back of my mind. And when my eye fell on Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore, I knew it’d be perfect.

I’d read two Dunmore’s novels before this, and both were perfect examples of their form: gothic (A Spell of Winter) and ghost (The Greatcoat). I bought this one from Better World Books on the strength of my love for those novels, and I didn’t even bother reading the publisher blurb first. All I knew before I began reading was that it had an exquisite cover and someone from Washington Post found it terrifying.

The prologue/s opening sentence confirmed its RIP worthiness:

The newer graves lie full in the sun, beyond the shadow of the church and yew tree.

I was soon lost in Dunmore’s writing-lush yet precise, and the powerful voice of her (perhaps unreliable) narrator, Nina. After the prologue, the story opens with Nina arriving at her older sister Isabel’s house, to help her with her first baby. It was a difficult birth, and there’s a subtle sense of uneasiness about the house, centered around Isabel, that heightens as the book continues. Faced with her new nephew, Nina begins to remember her own younger brother, who died in infancy of crib death, and the childhood games she and Isabel used to play. This is certainly not a horror novel, but Dunmore is a master at the kind of psychological creepiness that gets under your skin, until you find yourself holding your breath as you turn the page, in fear of what might happen next. Both Nina and Isabel are strange women, uncanny in different ways, and the very strength of their relationship feels eerie.

The book is also luscious: Nina loves to cook and eat and the way she talks about food will have you longing to sit at her table.

They are not the right apples, but I won’t get better in the tail end of the season, before the new apples come in. They must be cut evenly, in fine crescents of equal thickness, which will lap round in ring after ring, hooping inward, glazed with apricot jam. The tart must cook until the tips of the apple rings are almost black but the fruit itself is still plump and moist. When you close your eyes and bite you must taste caramel, sharp apple, juice, and the short, sandy texture of sweet pastry all at once.

I ended up staying up late last night to finish it: every time I kept thinking ‘just one more chapter’ until suddenly it was over. This was an incredibly written, perfectly satisfying novel: it has gothic and dark fairy tale veins running through it, but at its heart are Nina and Isabel and how powerfully real they feel. It confirms Dunmore as one of my favourite authors, and I can’t recommend Talking to the Dead highly enough.

Suggested Companion Reads

  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson: is it possible to discuss an eerie sisterly relationship without hearing echoes of “Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep? Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!”? If you haven’t read this novella yet, you need to.
  • The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi: can’t get enough of creepy children? Here’s a story all about a strange little girl who meets an even stranger one.
  • Disquiet by Julia Leigh: a strange little book, once again centered around an off kilter family in an isolated home, featuring a woman who’s just given birth. It’s much weirder, and leaves much more to the reader’s imagination, than Talking to the Dead.
  • True Murder by Yaba Badoe: this is another gothic novel, although centered around children instead of adults, that includes dark past deeds. It’s set in a boarding school and lives up to all it promises.
  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins: more sisters, more suspense, more R.I.P. fabulousness.
33 Comments leave one →
  1. September 19, 2014 12:52 pm

    I do not approve of this (mutters about necromancy) ;-)

    • September 19, 2014 12:56 pm


      If it makes you feel better, the dead stay dead. ;) It’s from a poem quoted in the book: I’m not sure if it’s a poem that really exists or if Dunmore made it up.

  2. September 19, 2014 1:30 pm

    Okay, I would have have bought this for the cover alone! But yeah, it sounds like it gets even better from there! I think Helen Dunsmore needs to go onto my must read list, period. Gah–and you have me wanting to read *all* of the companion reads as well. (I’ve read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but I’m definitely overdue for a reread.) You know most people add one book at best to my wish list with a blog post, but you have a way of adding several at a time. Hope you’re proud of yourself. :P

    • September 19, 2014 5:23 pm

      Isn’t it a beautiful cover? I’ve left it out on my coffee table so I can admire it. Hehe

      And listing those companion reads made me want to reread them all! I grabbed my copy of We Have Always Lived in the Castle to double check the Merricat quote, and now it’s sitting on my desk tempting me.

  3. September 19, 2014 2:54 pm

    I enjoyed this novel enormously when I read it a couple of years ago.

  4. September 19, 2014 3:20 pm

    Dunmore is quickly becoming a new favorite author of mine, so I’m happy that I have this one to look forward to, now. And as I want to read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I will take your suggestion and read the two together.

    • September 19, 2014 5:24 pm

      I’m rather surprised she isn’t better known! She reminds me a bit of Byatt. I think you’ll enjoy reading those two together/in short order. The Jackson is a quick read too. :)

  5. queenofthepark permalink
    September 19, 2014 4:55 pm

    Second Dunmore recommendation via my blogging friends in as many days!
    Thinking that I need to listen
    Other title was The Seige warmly endorsed by Sue Hepworth on her top ten fiction choices
    Off to the library now!

    • September 19, 2014 5:25 pm

      I studied abroad in St. Petersburg in college, so I’ve been a bit hesitant to read The Siege, but now I think I trust her enough to give it a go! Hope your library has some of her books.

      • queenofthepark permalink
        September 19, 2014 8:59 pm

        What an amazing experience study in st Petersburg must have been
        How many semesters?

      • September 20, 2014 4:50 pm

        I spent 6 months in Russia, 2 of them-mid June through mid August-living in St. Petersburg (plus another week there during my fall semester). I definitely fell in love with it hard & fast.

  6. September 19, 2014 6:07 pm

    I read this years ago, when it first came out, and now you have me wanting to pull out my copy to re-read.

    • September 20, 2014 4:51 pm

      I’m glad I have a copy on my shelves for easy reread possibilities. :)

  7. September 20, 2014 4:33 am

    My mom and I have a little two-person book club and it is my turn to make the next selection. I have been trying to think of a creepy novel for us to read in October and you may have just ended my search. This sounds perfect!

    • September 20, 2014 4:55 pm

      I should probably give you a heads up that there are some ‘raw’ sex scenes in the book! So depending on your mom & your relationship w her, you can decide if it’ll work. If not, any of the books under suggested companion reads are also creepy and don’t need an Adult Warning (I’m not sure about Disquiet). Let’s see…there’s also Will Storr vs the Supernatural, which is a memoir by a skeptical journalist who hangs out with various people who believe in the paranormal: it has some creepy-ish moments. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters could be another good choice. Any of John Harwood’s books. Carol Goodman writes lightly creepy/old secret-y novels too. It’s surprisingly difficult to find a truly scary, beautifully written book though!

      • September 20, 2014 5:56 pm

        Yikes! I’m glad you mentioned that. Maybe I’ll read it myself first and evaluate before sending it along. Thank you for the additional suggestions.

  8. September 20, 2014 9:47 am

    The premise of this book sounds great. I’ve been looking for a mystery, gothic atmospere novel to get me out of a reading slump (they are the worst ever) and this seems like it would do just that (love the quotes from the novel).

    I’d add ‘The thirteenth tale’ by Diane Setterfield to Suggested reads as a personal favorite :). That novel and ‘The woman in white’ ruined the genre for me because I’ve been looking for books that are similar and somehow end up disappointed and pick up another one.

    • September 20, 2014 4:57 pm

      I hate reading slumps. And yay to Thirteenth Tale! :) This is is less gothic than that, fyi. Have you tried Sarah Waters? Affinity is probably the closest to Victorian gothic. And there’s John Harwood, who I just mentioned up above: he’s an Aussie but his books are set in 19th century England.

      • September 21, 2014 2:23 am

        There should be a rule against reading slumps when you most need them (it’s getting chilly outside pretty quickly where I live).

        I love Sarah Waters! You are right, she has many novels out, I just have to pick one :).

        “The ghost writer” is on my TBR list on Goodreads also (but I think it’s harder to find, maybe my Kindle will help me out on this one).

        I guess I’ll also pick up “Bellman and Black” by Setterfield soon. Dreading to get to it because it has many mixed to negative reviews…

        If nothing works, at least BBC made a “Thirteenth tale” adaptation in 2013 and this fact somehow eluded me until yesterday :).

      • September 21, 2014 8:02 am

        There should be a rule, I agree! Sometimes when I’m in a slump I just reread an old favourite and that seems to snap me out of it. Other times I turn to Netflix for awhile. :)

        Bellman & Black felt quite different from The Thirteenth Tale: I enjoyed it & found it quite page-turning but for me it didn’t have the same depth or staying power. I think I read it all in one sitting though, so it might be just the thing!

        I didn’t realise there was an adaptation. I’m always curious about how they adapt a book in which the narrator is such a huge part of the story for TV/movies.

  9. September 20, 2014 4:46 pm

    I hadn’t heard of this author before, but since I loved We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I will definitely put it on my list!

    • September 20, 2014 4:57 pm

      This is different from the Jackson, but it’s fabulous in its own creepy sister way! :) I think you’d like it: the focus is very much on relationships.

  10. September 21, 2014 11:36 am

    What a wonderful cover! I’ve read one Helen Dunmore book and wasn’t completely wild about it, but it wasn’t a creepy one. I always have much higher hopes for creepy books, even if they are by authors who have not worked for me in the past.

    • October 2, 2014 2:24 pm

      Which one? I’ve only read three of hers now, but they’ve all been more towards the gothic/creepy end. I too always have high hopes for those books!

  11. September 21, 2014 11:39 am

    Loved the Woman in White so much, I read it several times. It never disappoints, as good classics are prone to dol I picked up an anthology of Edgar Allen Poe last night, and got so frightened I didn’t read on. How can Stephen King seem scary next to him?! Anyway, glad for the suggestion of the book you reviewed here; off to the library to see if I can find it.

    • October 2, 2014 2:25 pm

      I read a few Poe short stories when I was a teen and they still terrify me all these years later! I love The Woman in White too: I think I’ve read it 2 or 3 times now?

  12. September 22, 2014 8:30 pm

    I wonder how I’ve managed to miss Dunmore for this long. I’ll have to get something by her onto my winter reading list.

    • October 2, 2014 2:25 pm

      A Spell of Winter would be seasonally appropriate! ;)

  13. September 27, 2014 8:02 am

    Oh, I’m so so glad my library had this one. I couldn’t find it searching by title, but then found they have a huge collection of her books. Including this one! (Though with a very different cover.)

    • October 2, 2014 2:25 pm

      Interesting re: the different cover! Good for you being tenacious: unhelpful library catalogues are such a pain.

  14. September 28, 2014 10:01 pm

    So I have already requested this from my library, plus the True Murder book, neither of which I’d heard of. I have missed your blogging, Eva!! lol So very happy you are able to do some, now. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is creepy, isn’t it? I’m due to reread that soon. I’m happy you enjoyed it so much, too :-)

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