Review

Ice Cream

by Helen Dunmore



You know the saying: you can't tell a book by its cover. As a
reviewer, I don't take looks too seriously but I have to admit this
is one cute package: a slim vanilla volume covered by a shiny dust
jacket with candy-colored stripes and a picture of an (empty)
ice-cream dish. It is almost edible.

In fact, the title story wasn't by any means my favorite --- it's a
sort of glamorous throwaway about the suppression of appetite and
its greedy return. But Dunmore, who is also a poet, writes so
sensuously and precisely that she can make nearly anything matter.
Best known as the author of elegant, pared-down psychological
thrillers like TALKING TO THE DEAD and WITH YOUR CROOKED HEART, she
has recently ventured beyond that genre with THE SIEGE, a novel set
in the USSR during World War II. And now comes this collection of
18 stories --- none of which, as far as I can make out, have been
published previously.

Stories aren't usually my thing, except when they're by Alice Munro
or Katherine Mansfield. If they move me, I want more; I want to be
immersed for days (if possible) in a world of somebody else's
making. Still, there is something thrilling about the way a story
can begin with a moment and then open up to an entire life --- but
subtly and concisely, so you get only the details you need and not
the entire family tree. Dunmore seems to know instinctively just
how much to tell: not so much that the narrative loses pace and
edge, not so little that it becomes annoyingly cryptic. And her
talent is such that ICE CREAM, although uneven in quality
(short-story collections inevitably are), lives up to its name. I
wanted to devour it all at once and had to make myself take it in
slowly, bite by voluptuous bite.

Dunmore's sense of language is extraordinary: lush, unhackneyed and
rhythmic. She has a way of getting inside a character's head and
making herself at home there; the stream of sensation, memory and
ephemera is perfectly believable. In "You Stayed Awake With Me,"
two friends, one of them ill, revisit a childhood summerhouse ---
and some past betrayals. "Pain is a climate like winter," the sick
woman thinks. "It closes over you and soon you can't imagine not
living in it. Some days, when I wake, before I move, I pretend to
myself. I think I've got away. I'm stepping off a plane into a
different climate where warm, spicy breezes blow your clothes
against your thighs. I'm walking so lightly and easily that it
feels like flying." "The Lighthouse Keeper's Wife," one of the best
stories in the book, presents us with a man in mourning whose
conversation with himself becomes our lens for a woman's hard,
isolated, sturdy life: "Slowly, methodically, he would climb the
lighthouse tower, toward the light, thinking of her. A mound of sea
thudded against the tower, then fell back and weaseled at the foot
of the rock, getting its strength. Nancy said she did not mind
thinking of him in the lighthouse, no matter how bad the storms,
but what she kept out of her thoughts was the moment when he was
brought off the landing-platform, with the sea hungry for him and
the lighthouse tender pitching. … It made her sick to think
of it, she said, though he knew she could walk to the edge of the
cliff and stand there without a moment's dizziness."

There is no theme as such in ICE CREAM; the eclectic mix suggests a
conscious effort to show off Dunmore's range, which is impressive
--- from the futuristic bite of "Leonardo, Michelangelo,
Superstork" to macabre fables like "Emily's Ring" and "The Clear
and Rolling Water" to gentler vignettes that release sweet moments
of transcendence ("Swimming Into the Millennium"; "Be Vigilant,
Rejoice, Eat Plenty"). But I think her most original stories are
darker. They are about the courage, craziness and solitude of the
outsider and involve psychological and physical violence as
well.

Many of the tales in ICE CREAM come from the "wrong" side of some
cultural divide or social convention --- geography, language,
class, sexual roles --- and three of them are linked by a common
protagonist: Ulli, a Finnish woman whose smart, ironic voice
reveals a wintry landscape of the soul. "The Icon Room," a
brilliant story, relates her encounter with a stranger, both of
them with only a lonely Sunday to look forward to: "Drinking cups
of coffee until your heart bangs and you feel dizzy when you stand
up. Walking home the quiet way and standing still while a lick of
spring sunlight needles your skin. Prickling all afternoon as you
wait for the sound of the telephone bell, which doesn't ring and
doesn't ring, until at last you give up and put on your dressing
gown."

I'd like to hear from Ulli again. I grew fond of her; I want to
know more about her. I'd like her to have a companion and a whole
book to stretch out in --- because, as good as these are, stories
always stop too soon.

Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 22, 2011

Ice Cream
by Helen Dunmore

  • Publication Date: December 10, 2002
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802117333
  • ISBN-13: 9780802117335