Burning Bright by Helen Dunmore

DATE FINISHED: June 25th, 2012 

RATED: *** (3.5)

SYNOPSIS:  When her parents move to Germany with their other daughter (who has cerebral palsy & needs their care), 16 year old Nadine moves to London with her older boyfriend Kai.  Also living in the house are Kai’s business partner Tony, and sitting tenant Enid, way up in the attic.  While Nadine buries her head in the sand with regard to Kai and Tony’s line of work, she spends time with Enid and her pre-war stories of life in Manchester with the beautiful Sukey and jealous Caro (who was jailed for Sukey’s murder).  But it seems only a matter of time before the fragile structure of their lives falls apart…

THOUGHTS:  Nadine is a wilfully naive character and difficult to relate to despite being easy to read.  How many 16 year olds are happy to sit and cross stitch the day away while their boyfriend works in a job they know nothing about, and accept such scant attention from them when they are home?  Kai is portrayed as charmless from the start, so it is difficult to see where the attraction lies, except in the convenience of having a place to stay once her parents have left (but this is never suggested to be her reason for being there).  She is one of those passive characters who things just seem to happen to without any suggestion of action or reaction on her part.

In the absence of her parents, the presence of Enid fills a convenient gap for Nadine; and Enid’s stories of her unconventional life and love affair in pre-war Manchester are interesting, despite seeming like something of a diversionary tactic in an otherwise slow-moving story.  She has the job of explaining to Nadine the implications of her affair with Kai, after a fairly obvious outing/meeting with Tony and a client (which one would think would have already made things fairly clear to her).  The ending, too, is far too cosy for my taste, given all that has preceded it.  The most interesting element for me was a tale from Kai’s childhood, told early on, in which he sought out a spirit from a Finnish folktale, only to be left crying and freezing on the ice – the implication being that his soul was stolen at this early age, accounting for his coldness in later life.  An intriguing idea, but not really a strong foundation for the psychology of such a cold man…

Dunmore draws the surroundings of her characters well, from the opulence of Enid’s ladies’ club in Manchester to the neglected house they share; but the characters themselves are never really fleshed out or recognisable (with the exception of Enid who is really the only splash of colour).  Although smoothly written and interesting in parts, Burning Bright simply fell short for me, having neither the glittering crispness of   A Spell of Winter,  nor the taut and highly-charged atmosphere of Talking to the Dead.

FOLLOWING ON:  Love of Fat Men by Helen Dunmore is the nearest comparison in Dunmore’s own work, although I found the stories even more detached and lacking in humanity than I did in Burning Bright. [2015 edit: writing style and some similar themes can be found in The Ladies of the House by Molly McGrann.]

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