Girl Balancing by Helen Dunmore

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Review by Harriet

Girl Balancing Helen Dunmore

It was a great loss to the world of fiction when Helen Dunmore sadly died in 2017. Fortunately for her admirers, of which I am happy to be one, she left a legacy of short stories, some never before published, which have now appeared in one volume. Her son, who edited this volume, tells of his search through her papers and files, and his great pleasure in discovering works he had not read before. This pleasure is now available to the rest of us, and I certainly enjoyed the collection enormously.

The book is divided into three parts. The first is The Nina Stories, followed by The Present and finally The Past. Personally I found the first and third sections to be the most satisfying, though there are some excellent stories in The Present as well. The Nina stories are a series of four delicate, beautifully observed glimpses into the life of a young woman. Set, most evocatively, in the 1940s or 50s, they begin with Nina aged five, suffering from a recurrent ear-ache. Her parents get her gently out of bed, and her mother finds the little bottle of olive oil she has managed to get from the chemist. The oil is warmed and trickled into her ear, and a warm cloth draped over her face. I’m old enough to remember similar incidents myself. There’s great love and compassion here, but in the next story we find Nina living on her own in a bedsit, aged only sixteen, while she goes to school and struggles at home with a terrifying gas boiler. In the fourth story, an element of menace appears when Nina goes roller skating with a boy called Mal, who starts to behave threateningly towards her when they reach their lonely destination. Luckily her skating abilities far exceed his, and she makes a triumphant escape.

Memorable stories in the middle section include the wonderfully named ‘Portrait of Auntie BinBag,with Ribbons’. Auntie Binnie is the eldest of the narrator’s mother’s five siblings, but

She didn’t look the eldest, with her large soft face and her round-toed, babyish shoes. Mum and my aunts and uncles talked about her as if she was a child.

Aunt Binnie got her nickname from her eccentric mode of dressing, in mismatched clothes unsuitable for the season and numerous trailing scarves. Her hobby is painting,and she produces a stream of pictures, abstracts with great blotches of often jarring colours. One day,when the narrator is eleven, Aunt Binnie’s landlady dies, and leaves her a thousand pounds. The family is shocked and horrified when she spends the whole lot on a course of art classes. An exhibition is held of the students’ work, and the narrator goes on her own to see it. Aunt Binnie’s contribution is a huge shock – the art teacher says she is by far the most talented student in the group – certainly her work shows a new side to this previously sidelined woman. ‘Hello Aunt Bi—‘, whispers the girl, and then corrects herself: ‘Hello Benedicta Cochrane’.

Another story I liked very much was ‘The Musicians of Ingo’. All the other stories in the collection are firmly set in the everyday world, but this one has an element of the fantastic. It takes place on an island separated from the mainland by a causeway which is often submerged under the sea. Originally it had been part of the mainland, but a great storm centuries ago caused the separation, and many people lost their lives. Among the survivors were a man with a fiddle and another with a set of bagpipes. These were the narrator Jenna’s ancestors, and everyone in the family plays an instrument, as do most people on the island. But nobody had ever heard anything like Digory’s playing. Jenna’s younger brother, Digory had picked up the violin aged four, and by seven was the most superb fiddle player imaginable. One night Jenna and her sister wake to find Digory out of his bed, and the sound of music carried across from the nearby coast. The whole family follows the sound and find the little boy happily playing with a whole orchestra of unseen musicians, submerged below the sea. ‘They’re in Ingo’, the boy explains, and tonight has exactly the right combination of tides and moonlight,  something that will not happen again for a hundred years.

The stories in The Past range from ‘Rose: 1944’, a bittersweet account of a young woman’s wartime love affair with a black GI, which highlights the appalling racism of its time, through ‘A Silver Cigar in the Sky’, another wartime story of a girl traumatised by the sight of the crash of the Zeppelin, another story in which a young wife is left alone when her husband goes on a polar expedition with Shackleton. The last three stories feature famous people real or fictional. ‘At the Institute’ obliquely tells the story of the final days of Katherine Mansfield, at Gurdjieff’s Institute in Switzerland. ‘Writ on Water’ is an account of the death of Keats, as told by his friend the artist Joseph Severn, who accompanied him to Rome in an unsuccessful attempt to regain his health. Then there’s ‘Grace Poole: Her Testimony’, in which the woman whose job it is to guard and nurse Mrs Rochester – the madwoman in the attic – tells her side of the story and reveals her hatred of Jane Eyre’: ‘She came in meek and mild but I knew her at first glance’.

So what do these stories tell us about Helen Dunmore? Nothing that we didn’t already know, but they confirm the very best of her considerable talent. They are stories full of humanity and compassion which witness her interest in women under stress or duress, in the horrors of war, in motherhood and in moments of joy at unexpected times. I’m very happy to have had a chance to read them.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Helen Dunmore, Girl Balancing (Windmill, 2019) ISBN 9781786090515, paperback, 382 pages.

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