In the past I’ve not been a great fan of the short story format, however, having read and enjoyed several novels by Helen Dunmore I felt sure I would enjoy this collection. Written by her over the past 20 years and published posthumously by her son, the book did not disappoint. The stories range widely; some warm and engaging, some chilling, some sad and moving. All thought-provoking. In the words of her son Patrick Charnley, who edited the book, Helen Dunmore “…recognised the work it can take simply to exist, for a person to make their way through their own life and the interactions that come together to shape a human existence”.

Throughout, Dunmore succinctly reveals all you need to know to grasp the context, such as place, age, period of history, family, and then develops whatever the issue the story explores. Not a word is wasted. I was surprised on re-reading the stories how short some are; but how much is communicated. We are there, travelling beside the characters and then, with them, at the end of the story, sharing closure or what might come next.

After reading each story, I felt that I knew the people, had shared a part of their lives, and felt richer for having done so. They made me pause and think about them. There are many examples where I would read a phrase or sentence and smile in recognition of the moment she has just described. In ‘The White Horse’, 17-year-old Nina, who we have heard making calculations how to stretch her very tight budget to buy food, is in a pub with acquaintances. One of them urges her not to stand the group a round of drinks. “It’s all right’, said Nina, but already her mind was making quick, panicky scampers”

Some stories are hard-hitting. Dunmore creates a growing sense of menace in a number of stories, for example, ‘A thousand roses’ and ‘In China, this would not happen’. There are sharp, witty descriptions of characters; the unpleasant mother-in-law in ‘With Shackleton’ and Binnie’s disparaging younger sister in ‘Portrait of Auntie Binbag, with ribbons’ come immediately to mind. I found every story absorbing.

I would thoroughly recommend it for reading groups, friends and family. Beautifully crafted, you feel that every word has been selected with such care, and feel that this great novelist and poet has distilled all her skills to provide us with this gem of a book.

Adie Batt 5/5

Girl, Balancing by Helen Dunmore
Windmill Books 9781786090515 pbk Mar 2019