The Keepsake feels so unlike other work by Kirsty Gunn because of how indoors it is. Not only does it take place almost entirely indoors, but it’s about being shut up indoors, in a single room in fact. But we see the same interest in light and place as usual.
First there is the single room where Marianne lives with her daughter. This room is all about darkness. Marianne keeps the curtains drawn all day and only opens them at night; her daughter sneaks behind the curtains while it’s still light outside to take in the day.
Then there is the single room where the daughter lives with the old man. The light streams through the window, the sun turning everything inside stuffy and hot.
Much better than either of these is the Portuguese cafe, where Marianne sometimes took her daughter, and where her daughter later went on her own. The cafe, or rather, the light in the cafe, opens and closes the novel. The daughter, the narrator, “visited the Portuguese cafe so often, for the coloured light the room held, the way it warmed the people who sat in it, gave lovely tints to their faces, pale rose and violet and yellow and blue.”
The Keepsake is the story of another mother who can’t take care of her child, another abused child growing up broken. But this one is harsh and raw. Marianne has a soft, easy madness, but very bad things have happened to her and will happen to her daughter. There is brutality under the surface of the men in their lives; you will want to look away but Gunn will look away for you, letting you peek through your fingers and see just enough, or maybe just a little bit too much.
The story of the keepsake itself, a soft skin Marianne keeps draped over her sofa, is like that. (“The skin was a keepsake, my mother said, and I used to wonder, when I was a child, if that meant that for the poor animal’s sake we must keep it.” Foreshadowing, of course, and yet it all ends up being unexpected anyway.)
This book is harder to read than Kirsty Gunn’s others. Now that I’ve gone through all her work, I think I like it the least, though I was riveted while reading it. It’s true there are some amazing descriptions of light from this new interior perspective, but it’s all too harsh to really imagine a re-read. This one is a surreal, dreamy horror story, and really horrific.