For Helen Dunmore, writing a short story means capturing a slice of life. She picks a mood, an event or a day in someoneís life.
Her collection of short stories Ice Cream is mostly set in London -- not the London of Charles Dickens or Agatha Christie, but the city which frames the backdrop of Jeffrey Archerís novels. Her characters range from the cafeteria lady to the sophisticated single career woman.
Behind the small stories lie morals and a thinly veiled web that seeks to capture the heart of darkness in each of us, the prejudices, the biases and flaws that render us unable to reach our goals Ė or indeed, to even realize what we are grasping for.
The book's title has several connotations: because ice cream is usually a desert, it means that the main characters are searching for something extra, something beyond what they already have. It is served fresh and cold only once. Sometimes we donít get second helpings -- or second chances -- and if it melts, it doesnít taste the same. And of course, if you pick a wrong flavor, you are stuck with it.
Sometimes the stories are puzzling because the characters are left empty and dissatisfied. Sometimes they are heartwarming as they captures the elemental simplicity of people.
For example, the cafeteria lady becomes a penpal to a Polish teacher but when he comes to her country, she hides away, embarrassed by her low status in the school. She needn't have worried; he still wants to be a friend. In "Lilac", a little girl whose "mother was breaking down into a thousand pieces" is sent to stay with her aunt and cousins in a small town in Sweden.
In the titular story, a famous model, the "tantalizing" and beautiful Clara, celebrates her birthday with a party at a restaurant where there is a power struggle between the perfect model and her personal trainer who "hisses threats" to try and keep the model from ruining her supermodel figure by giving way to her banal desire of eating a dish of ice cream.
We want to applaud when "Clara swallows." And the story ends.
Dunmore's stories are clever and articulate, but they are short and end abruptly, leaving readers, well, hungry for more.
Maybe thatís the ideaÖ
Dunmore has authored several previous novels: Zennor in Darkness, which won the McKitterick Prize; Burning Bright; A Spell of Winter, which won the Orange Prize; Talking to the Dead; Your Blue-Eyed Boy; and With Your Crooked Heart. Her most recent novel is The Siege, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel Award.
She is also a poet, children's novelist and short-story writer; her prior collections is entitled Love of Fat Men.