Dunant, Sarah 1950–

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Dunant, Sarah 1950–

(Peter Dunant, a joint pseudonym)

PERSONAL: Born August 8, 1950, in London, England; daughter of David (an airline manager) and Estelle (a teacher; maiden name, Joseph) Dunant; children: Zoe, Georgia. Education: Cambridge University, degree in history, 1972.

ADDRESSES: Home and office—17 Tytherton Rd., London N19 4QB, England. Agent—Aitken & Stone Ltd., 18-21 Cavaye Place, London SW10 9PT, England.

CAREER: BBC-Radio, London, England, producer, 1974–76; freelance writer and broadcaster, 1977–; The Late Show, BBC2, presenter; Thin Air, BBC1, cowriter; Nightwaves, BBC Radio 3, presenter. Also worked as a critic and writer for the Guardian, the Times, and the Observer.

AWARDS, HONORS: Golden Dragon Award nomination, Crime Writers Association, 1987, for Intensive Care; Dagger Award, British Crime Writers' Association, 1993, for Fatlands.

WRITINGS:

NOVELS; WITH PETER BUSBY, UNDER JOINT PSEUDONYM PETER DUNANT

Exterminating Angels, Deutsch, 1983.

Intensive Care, Deutsch, 1986.

NOVELS

Snow Storms in a Hot Climate, Random House (New York, NY), 1988.

Transgressions, Virago (London, England), 1997, ReganBooks (New York, NY), 1998.

Mapping the Edge, Virago (London, England), 1999, Random House (New York, NY), 2001.

The Birth of Venus, Little Brown (London, England), 2003, Random House (New York, NY), 2004.

In the Company of the Courtesan, Random House (New York, NY), 2006.

"HANNAH WOLFE MYSTERY" SERIES

Birth Marks, M. Joseph (London, England), 1991, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1992.

Fatlands, O. Penzler Books (New York, NY), 1994.

Under My Skin, Scribner (New York, NY), 1995, Thorndike Press (Thorndike, ME), 1996.

OTHER

Thin Air (television serial), broadcast by BBC-TV, 1988.

(Editor) The War of the Words: The Political Correctness Debate, Virago (London, England), 1994.

(Editor, with Roy Porter) The Age of Anxiety, Virago (London, England), 1996.

SIDELIGHTS: British author Sarah Dunant's first solo novel, Snow Storms in a Hot Climate, is a psychological thriller set in the United States. Michael Freitag, writing in the New York Times Book Review, noted: "While American readers may not find the settings—cramped, gritty New York City and the vast, sparkling California coast, among others—particularly exotic, they will find the writing refreshingly economical and astute." Oxford professor Marla, protagonist and narrator of the novel, travels to New York to come to the aid of an old friend who has become emotionally involved with a mysterious cocaine dealer who may also be a murderer. According to Freitag, Marla "finds that she too has become caught in a complex web of emotions: friendship, romance, curiosity, jealousy and revenge." Freitag found Snow Storms in a Hot Climate to be an "intelligent and rarely predictable" novel with some "truly breathtaking" scenes. On the downside, he felt that Dunant "relies too heavily on secondhand storytelling to advance her plot."

In Birth Marks Dunant launched a mystery series featuring the female private detective Hannah Wolfe. Reviewing the novel for the New York Times Book Review, Marilyn Stasio called Dunant an "author with a streak of independence," and described Hannah as "entirely refreshing among her treacly peers … [a] coolly pragmatic London operative, [who] uses brains over charm, relies on psychology rather than intuition and does not confuse compassion with sentimentality." Hannah's first case involves a runaway ballerina who turns up floating in the Thames: dead, pregnant, and probably a suicide. The subsequent investigation reveals the woman's sad double life. The book's surprise ending, according to Stasio, leads to "a real education" for Hannah.

Hannah Wolfe returns in Fatlands, the tale of a scientist who uses animals in his experiments. The scientist's fourteen-year-old daughter is killed by a car bomb, probably meant for him and most likely planted by radical animal-rights activists. Hannah's investigation reveals corporate and scientific skulduggery fueled by runaway greed. Emily Melton of Booklist commented: "Dunant's writing is smooth, polished, funny, and sophisticated, with an inventive plot and some sharp-edged commentary about the ethics of the modern-day business/science community." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly found Hannah's observations to be "frequently funny, occasionally poignant and always insightful." The third Hannah Wolfe entry, Under My Skin, is set against the backdrop of an exclusive health and beauty spa. Someone is out to sabotage the spa and Hannah is hired to uncover the culprit. Melton was somewhat disappointed by the book, writing, "Not to say … [it] is a bad book. It just never quite reaches the pinnacle of excellence that Fatlands achieved." However, Melton concluded that the novel's "keep-'em-guessing plot, dry wit, and a revealing look at society's expectations about beauty and youth make this one an entertaining and educational read."

In Transgressions, a non-series mystery, Dunant explores the themes of sexual obsession, power, and violence. Elizabeth Skvorecky, deserted by her lover of eight years, isolates herself in her London mansion and spends her time translating a Czech police thriller that is rife with images of sadistic pornography. At first she finds the book disgusting, but then begins to realize it has "burrowed its way under her skin." When objects begin disappearing from the mansion, Elizabeth suspects either her former lover or a poltergeist, yet she is soon confronted by the real intruder, a serial rapist, whom she proceeds to seduce. Elizabeth subsequently "stalks" the rapist-stalker by baiting him with pornographic passages purportedly excerpted from the Czech police thriller, but which she has actually written herself. Much of this material appears in the text of the novel. Dunant's stated purpose with Transgressions was "to breathe life into the victims [of rape]." However, a Publishers Weekly reviewer felt that "it's hard to distinguish between what Lizzie writes and the ill-conceived, poorly disguised appeal to prurience Dunant has penned."

The Birth of Venus, Dunant's debut into the genre of historical fiction, has earned her critical acclaim. Set in Florence, Italy, in the late 1400s, The Birth of Venus begins with the death of a respected nun, Sister Lucrezia, whom the other sisters believed was suffering from a cancerous tumor. A postmortem examination of her body reveals not only a scandalous snake tattoo, but also that she had faked her illness. The rest of the book is a first-person account of Sister Lucrezia's secret history, beginning with her life as Alessandra Cecchi, the youngest daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant in Florence.

Coming of age during the Italian Renaissance, Alessandra is a clever, educated young woman who loves art and dreams of creating her own masterpiece. Entering into a marriage of convenience with an older man, Alessandra discovers her husband's dangerous secret on their wedding night, and seeks solace and fulfillment in the arms of a talented young artist.

Calling The Birth of Venus "a powerful and evocative novel," Spectator critic Alan Wall felt that Dunant "carries off the daring plot with considerable panache." Other critics were equally enthusiastic. A critic for Publishers Weekly termed the novel an "arresting tale of art, love and betrayal," and Bella Stander of People called it "a broad mural bursting with color, passion, and intrigue." Likewise, in a review for the New Statesman, Vicky Hutchings remarked, "Dunant has discovered her métier in the form of a historical melodrama."

Dunant is also the editor of and a contributor to The War of the Words: The Political Correctness Debate, a collection of essays that argues the relevance of gender and ethnic issues to any contemporary political debate, and attempts to put forth a methodology as to how these issues can best be raised.

Dunant, in a "Meet the Writers" interview on the Barnes and Noble Web site, revealed that the thing she finds most helpful to her writing is "terror." She went on, explaining that "the feeling that I will never write this book if I don't get up and type in some new words every morning" is her best motivation. She also remarked that to be a successful writer you "need a clear sense of determination." She said: "Writing is hard, rejection is harder, and both are necessary."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, November 1, 1994, Emily Melton, review of Fatlands, p. 480; September 15, 1995, Emily Melton, review of Under My Skin, p. 142; December 1, 2003, Elsa Gaztambide, review of The Birth of Venus, p. 645.

Bookseller, March 12, 2004, "'Pearl Earring' Factor for Dunant," review of The Birth of Venus, p. 33.

Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 2003, review of The Birth of Venus, p. 1371.

Kliatt, May, 2005, Nola Theiss, review of The Birth of Venus, p. 23.

Library Journal, December, 2003, Jean Langlais, review of The Birth of Venus, p. 165.

New Statesman, July 11, 1997, Vicky Hutchings, review of Transgressions, p. 49; April 14, 2003, Vicky Hutchings, review of The Birth of Venus, p. 51.

New Statesman & Society, October 21, 1994, Michael Rosen, review of The War of the Words: The Political Correctness Debate, p. 40.

Newsweek, May 3, 2004, Elise Soukup, "Books: Too Smart for Her Own Good?," review of The Birth of Venus, p. 14.

New York Times Book Review, January 1, 1989, Michael Freitag, review of Snowstorms in a Hot Climate, p. 14; October 25, 1992, Marilyn Stasio, review of Birth Marks, p. 29.

People, February 23, 2004, Bella Stander, review of The Birth of Venus, p. 46.

Publishers Weekly, October 17, 1994, review of Fatlands, p. 67; August 21, 1995, review of Under My Skin, p. 49; February 16, 1998, review of Transgressions, p. 203; December 15, 2003, review of The Birth of Venus, p. 51.

Spectator, May 3, 2003, Alan Wall, "Feisty Renaissance Woman," review of The Birth of Venus, p. 44.

ONLINE

Barnes and Noble Web site, http://www.barnesandnoble.com/ (September 29, 2005), "Meet the Writers: Sarah Dunant."

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