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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

A Beautiful Shambles

Mourning Ruby - Helen Dunmore

Abandoned in a shoe box outside an Italian restaurant, Rebecca grows up to be an uncertain adult, aware of the histories others carry around with them and conscious of the gap in her own life story. She lives for some years in a Platonic relationship with Joe, a popular historian researching Stalin's life, before she meets and marries Adam, a neonatologist, with whom she has Ruby, a child on whom she showers all the love she lacked in her own childhood. But when Ruby is killed in a car accident Rebecca's hopes and dreams come crashing to the ground. Her relationship with Adam crumbles and she starts a new life working for Mr Damiano, a former circus performer who runs a chain of restaurants.

It's a story that already seems to be going in several directions at once yet at this point Helen Dunmore decides to import into the narrative the text of a novel being written by Joe about a relationship between a First World War pilot called Will and a prostitute called Florence. It's hard to see why. Will and Florence's story has nothing but a tenuous thematic connection with the main narrative and it is not even properly realised, much of it being only in note form. As a result the structure of the book entirely disintegrates.

As always with Helen Dunmore, the writing is lyrical and the observation of human behaviour acute. Here she is describing the effect of Ruby's death on Rebecca's life with Adam:

'Our house was full of grief, packed solid with this thing that kept changing shape and seizing us in new ways. It had moved in like a crowd of strangers: animal, vegetable, mineral. At one moment it was a picture book, the next it became a scuffed place under the swing. It sat on Adam's desk, it would not let us sit at the kitchen table, it pounced as next door's cat squirmed in the autumn sun. It trod everywhere. In the shower water hit me like rods of iron and I gasped under the weight.'

But it's a beautifully written shambles. A novel needs more shape and organisation than this. At the end I felt like I had been reading a narrative stitched together from the left over bits of other novels