Reading Helen Dunmore’s short story collection, Love of Fat Men, felt like people-watching, or those encounters you have with strangers, in shop queues, as bus-stops, waiting at a bar, which leave an imprint, small and very temporary, but an imprint all the same.
You wonder about their histories, these people; you wonder about their untold stories. You wonder if the married couple pushing the trolley through the supermarket are still in love. If the man sitting alone reading his book in the launderette is lonely or whether going there has afforded him an hour and a half of solitude in a busy day. Either way, the way his nose is almost touching the page tells you he’s forgotten everything else.
The appeal of strangers is their mystery, their strangeness. As with Dunmore’s stories, you the reader, the observer, slip in and out of a series of lives. You don’t interrupt. You’re just watching. You are very much apart from it, allowed just a taster. The rest, you must make up in your head.
So Dunmore does not try to get too much into her characters’ heads. She explains how they feel, their motivations, but that is not her focus. Rather, she creates these scenes, these snapshots, of the human experience. You come away knowing not much more about the characters than when you started, but that’s not a weakness. That’s the beauty of it. The mystery, to be built upon by the tools of your imagination, remains. Like those strangers you wonder about as they walk out of sight.
I believe this is was a short story should be. An observation. A sketch. Quiet – detailed yet detached. Fascinating and mysterious. Not epiphanic, not promising it knows the wholeness of things. Instead, a hint. The best short stories, instead of being wholesome and rounded like a poem, often feel rather incomplete.
Dunmore’s prose is exquisite. Crisp, elegant. I had this sustained feeling of recognition, of scenes, moments—quiet moments—of particular times of day. It’s a lovely feeling when someone else is able to skewer them perfectly to the page. The images she conjures up are textured, flavoured, scented. Image after image, sensation after sensation, rise up, fade away, and are replaced by new ones.
A wonderful collection. Recommended.