The novels of Helen Dunmore range in form and tone from the gothic melodrama A Spell of Winter (1995), which won England’s Orange Prize, to the realistic work The Siege (2001), set in wartime Leningrad. Her short fiction is just as varied. The eighteen stories in Ice Cream resemble each other only in that each of them focuses on the constantly-changing emotions of a pivotal character.
The title story, a light-hearted social satire, is about a weight-conscious model’s yearning for ice cream, while “Swimming into the Millennium” also begins as satire, this time of the obsession with working out. After being given a subscription to a health club, the middle-aged protagonist dreads appearing in a room full of slim, young bodies. However, her mood changes when in the health club pool she finds both a forgotten pleasure and a new acceptance.
Not all of the stories in Ice Cream are so optimistic. The hapless Finnish girl Ulli, who was introduced in Love of Fat Men (1997), is just as hapless in Ice Cream. In “The Kiwi Fruit Arbour,” she is sixteen and pregnant; in “Living Out” and “The Icon Room,” though she is older, she is no wiser. Like many of Helen Dunmore’s other characters, she drifts through life, propelled by her feelings, which are likely to change from moment to moment.
Although sometimes kind hearts do prevail, as in “Swimming into the Millennium” and in the touching “My Polish Teacher’s Tie,” more often the stories in Ice Cream end sadly. What makes them so compelling is the author’s insight into her characters and her compassion for them. Helen Dunmore writes about more than the human condition; she reveals the human heart.