Girl, Balancing & Other Stories
Review by Shirley Whiteside
Helen Dunmore died in June 2017, leaving behind an illustrious literary legacy of award-winning novels, short stories, children’s novels, and poetry. Some months after her death, her family, agent, and publisher, came together to plan a posthumous collection of short stories, fulfilling one of her last wishes. The result is thirty-three stories, arranged in three sections; the Nina stories, the present, and the past.
Dunmore had a keen eye for the telling detail that illuminates her characters and their worlds. This is apparent in the four Nina stories, following her from childhood to young womanhood. In Cradling, little Nina has an earache and is being comforted by her father. She curls up in his arms, ‘like a snail inside its shell’, and hears ‘the little pock sound of someone lighting a cigarette’. In The Towel, Nina is living on her own for the first time in a bedsit. She struggles with the bathroom geyser and ends up taking a cold bath, too unsure of herself to ask for help. As the bath water drains it sounds like, ‘an old person clearing catarrh in the morning’. In the title story, Girl, Balancing, Nina finds herself unexpectedly alone at Christmas in a large, empty house by the sea. She decides to go roller-skating, using her old, adjustable skates, along the deserted promenade. She is reliving her childhood by performing turns, jumps, and arabesques on one leg, and finding a sense of balance in her life.
Dunmore had a forensic ability to find the cracks and crevices where people hide their most embarrassing or humiliating moments. She was never cruel in her observations, but always true to her tale. Her characters may not always be likeable but their authenticity makes them compelling. Many are outsiders, people who are looking in on other peoples’ lives while forgetting to live their own. Some have hidden depths, like Binnie, in Portrait of Auntie Binbag, with Ribbons. Binnie is something of a family oddity, never marrying and dressing like an explosion in a charity shop. But Binnie is loving and generous and finds her own way of expressing herself. Stories are never tied up with a neat bow. Like real life, they are often messy and confused but frequently have a kernel of hope for the future. There is a precision and lyricism to Dunmore’s writing that makes it such a pleasure to read. A ‘warm wriggle of oil’ drips into a child’s ear; a baby’s elbow is ‘so soft and dimpled that it fits into your mouth like a plum’; sweat trickles down a forehead ‘tickling like an insect’; and someone is old enough to remember ‘what it was like to fossick about with Tipp-Ex’.
In About the First World War, Mrs Jackson is having tea to celebrate her hundredth birthday. A young man is there, someone she doesn’t know, and he keeps taking photographs of her. She knows he is going to ask her about the First World War, as young people always do. ‘I’ve seen the whole world die in my time’, thinks Mrs Jackson. Dunmore skilfully slips between Mrs Jackson’s past and present, subtly showing that her memories of the past burn brighter than those of the present.
In the Past section, Dunmore gives voice to Grace Poole, the servant who looked after the first Mrs Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. In Grace’s eyes, Jane Eyre is a sly, conniving creature, while Mrs Rochester is just a troubled soul who is being unfairly treated by her husband. It is fascinating to read part of the classic tale from a different viewpoint, with Jane being the villain of the piece. Grace says of Jane, ‘you could put your hand through Miss Eyre and never grasp her’.