I read in the New York Times this morning that Helen Dunmore, poet and historical novelist, died on June 5, in Bristol, England. Even though I never met her, I feel sad and bereft, because her voice was one that always moved me. Her novel The Lie was the first book I reviewed on this blog, more than two-and-a-half years ago, and I can’t say I’ve read a more powerful one since. When Dunmore wrote about loss, as she did in that novel, she did so with breathtaking honesty, pulling no punches, sparing nothing and no one. Yet throughout, it’s empathy that comes through most clearly, which is why I can’t put her books down, despite how much they terrify me.
Speaking of terror, I’ve read three of her thrillers, and they’re marvelous. The Siege deals with the German attack on Leningrad during the Second World War, a subject that, by the way, has received plenty of fictional attention. A sort-of sequel, The Betrayal, centers on the so-called Doctors’ Plot, Stalin’s last purge before he died. And Exposed, reviewed here, reinvents the Soviet spy ring that infiltrated British Intelligence during the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Helen Dunmore has influenced me as a writer, even though her choice of subject matter and characters differ from mine. I admire her economy, her directness, her lucid prose that never lets beautiful sentences get in the way, and how she can make ordinary moments extraordinary. Most of all, she renders those ordinary moments so that she needs no Very Significant plot points to generate tension, for character drives her gripping narratives, first, last, and always.
I will miss her, and from six thousand anonymous miles away, I offer my condolences to her friends and family. Literature is the poorer for her death.