Posted in Book Reviews

Girl, Balancing & Other Stories by Helen Dunmore – Herald Review

Girl Balancing

Girl Balancing

Girl, Balancing & Other Stories

Helen Dunmore

Hutchinson, £20

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’.

Posted in Book Reviews

The Museum of You – Book Oxygen Review

The Museum of You

Carys Bray

Published by Hutchinson 16 June 2016

360pp, hardback, £12.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside



Clover Quinn is twelve years old, and this is the first summer that her dad, Darren, has trusted her to stay at home alone during the school holidays. He is busy driving a bus from Southport to Liverpool and back, twice a day, worrying about his daughter, re-examining her every action, and wondering whether she is happy. Becky, Clover’s mother, died when her daughter was just weeks old so it has always been just the two of them, muddling along in the shadow of Becky. Darren never talks about his wife and his daughter isn’t sure how to ask about her.

Clover has been enjoying visits to various museums with the school and decides to curate her own exhibition, made up from Becky’s things which are still stored in the spare room. It is her way of getting to know her mother and a surprise for her father. Bray intersperses the narrative with Clover’s lists and plans for her exhibition which are delightfully detailed and charmingly naive. As Clover gathers specific items, she learns things about her mother that her father has kept secret and is torn between loyalty to him and wanting to know about Becky. Bray subtly shows how Clover is missing a vital piece of her life without being mawkish or overly sentimental.

Clover is an endearing character, sometimes wise beyond her years, sometimes just a little girl who wants a mum. She is bright and resourceful, full of ideas and questions about the world. She is a plucky girl and it is easy to both empathize with her loss and admire her determination to do something about it. There is a simplicity to her thinking that is in keeping with her tender years, the kind of childish logic that sadly doesn’t survive the teenage years.

At times, Darren seems less capable than his daughter, and if there is one criticism about the novel it is that Darren’s voice is not different enough from Clover’s. Darren has sacrificed his own dreams to care for his daughter, the child he and Becky didn’t even know was on the way. His world has become very limited, built around Clover and her happiness, and his deep-seated loneliness is gently inferred.

Bray’s supporting characters add colour and interest to the story, particularly the Quinn’s neighbour, Mrs Mackerel. She has a habit of speaking loudly and precisely when making a point, which Bray shows by capitalizing parts of her speech. She provides the light relief in the story, an interfering woman whose heart is in the right place. She often looks after Clover, a sort of substitute aunt or grandmother, and anchors the Quinns in their neighbourhood.

Bray has written a compassionate story about fathers and daughters, painting an affectionate picture of a girl approaching puberty who misses the mother she never knew. It is a charming read with surprising emotional depths.

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