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Helen Dunmore, Who Wrote About Legacy and Loss, Dies at 64

Ms. Dunmore’s first collection of poetry, “The Apple Fall” (1983), was published when she was 30, but it was her celebration of nature in “The Raw Garden” (1988) that established her reputation.

After flirting with autobiographical novels (which were never printed), she published her first novel, “Zennor in Darkness” (1993), when she was 40.

Her personification of history in the book, and the impact of warfare and loss on people’s lives — in this case, those of D. H. Lawrence and his German wife, the former Frieda von Richthofen, who were suspected of being spies in Cornwall after World War I — became a template for her future fiction. “Zennor in Darkness” (the title refers to a village in Cornwall) won the 1994 McKitterick Prize for debut novelists.



“I wanted to write about people who had not left behind their own accounts of their lives,” Ms. Dunmore wrote in The Guardian in March. “Their letters have been lost, their pamphlets have not been preserved, their money has not amounted to an inheritance and they had no epitaphs. Historical record does not know them, but fiction can imagine them.”

In 1996, her “A Spell of Winter,” about siblings growing up on their grandfather’s estate, won the inaugural Orange Prize for Fiction (now the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction).

Her first novel to be published in the United States, in 1997, was “Talking to the Dead,” a tale of two adult sisters, and of loss and abandonment, that appeared in Britain a year earlier. It drew praise from Carol Kino in The New York Times Book Review.

“What makes Ms. Dunmore’s story so gripping and complex,” she wrote, “is her ability to convey many different layers of experience at once.”

Ms. Dunmore’s novel “The Siege” (2001), about fallibility and fortitude during the harrowing Nazi blockade of Leningrad during World War II, was shortlisted for the Orange and Whitbread prizes. Her novel “The Betrayal” (2010) about postwar Russia, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

And her poem “The Malarkey,” which she said was about “what time takes away and how we take time for granted,” won the 2010 National Poetry Competition in Britain after she had submitted it anonymously.

“Leningrad and Cornwall’s Zennor came alive under her forensic eye and delicate touch,” her friend Prof. Helen Taylor, of the University of Exeter, wrote this week on the website Bristol247.com. “Ghosts as traces of unrecorded lives haunt her writing, and her keen feminist and liberal conscience imbue her work with moral power and gravitas.”

Ms. Dunmore typically took two years to write a novel, she told The Telegraph in 2003.

“Technically, I think, the hardest thing about writing a novel is the organization and pacing,” she said. “You cannot have it going at one pitch all the way through. It’s like a musical composition. There must be pauses, rest periods, accelerations, crescendos.”

She added, “In a way, character drives plot, because there are some things that a character cannot do, that it would be impossible for them to do, and you realize that when you get to know the character better.”

She wrote in The Guardian: “The key thing about fiction, as in life, is that no character knows what is going to happen. Every one is locked into the present moment, as we are now.”

Every character also has to eat, and Ms. Dunmore transformed mastication into a suggestive poetic metaphor.

“To write of food with love is the most innocent of pornographies,” she once wrote in a passage quoted by The Telegraph. “Say that Bernard has got up early and gone to market. He comes back with a basket of woven straw, in which nestle four fat, perfectly ripe figs. He gives the basket to Julia. Figs for breakfast.

“Their skin is as soft as suede,” she continued. “Julia chooses a fig and breathes in its spicy, sun-warmed fragrance. Bernard produces a bowl of thick yellow cream. Julia dips her fig into the cream, raises it to her mouth, and bites. The luscious, warm, grainy flesh melts into the cool unctuousness of cream. Years later, Bernard and Julia will never be able to separate the taste of figs from that of one another’s lips.”

Ms. Dunmore was born on Dec. 12, 1952, in Beverley, in East Yorkshire, to Maurice Dunmore, who managed industrial companies and was a poetry aficionado, and to the former Betty Smith.

Ms. Dunmore often recalled that her childhood ambition was to become a poet. She graduated from the University of York with a degree in English in 1973 and taught English in Finland before moving to Bristol, where she taught literature and creative writing.

Her husband, Francis Charnley, a lawyer, survives her. In addition to her son, Patrick, she is also survived by their daughter, Tess; a stepson, Ollie; and three grandchildren.

Her last book, “Birdcage Walk,” published by Hutchinson, takes place in another time, around the French Revolution, but in a real place. (Birdcage Walk is a path leading through an overgrown church graveyard in Clifton, a suburb of Bristol in England’s southwest.)

She also wrote it under a real shadow, her cancer diagnosis.

As she did, she thought about the broad meaning of legacy, from a family story retold through generations to the influence of a specific person who, “while nameless, soaked into the fabric of their times and changed the color.”

“There is a tendency to think and talk as if it is not the mark we leave upon time that we need to think about but the endless years that will be ours if we eat well enough and exercise effectively enough to dodge the grave,” Ms. Dunmore wrote in The Guardian.

Those thoughts permeated her book.

“I think of what is the mark that any human being leaves behind, which when you are very ill you’re bound to think about,” she told BBC Radio 4. “‘What is the purpose of my existence? Have I fulfilled my existence?’ and the characters are asking that question of themselves.”

Confronting death directly in her final poem, she compared it to a mother’s tender embrace. It was called “Hold Out Your Arms” and began:

“Death, hold out your arms for me Embrace / me Give me your motherly caress”

It ended this way:

As you push back my hair
— Which could do with a comb
But never mind — You murmur
‘We’re nearly there.’

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