The Keepsake by Kirsty Gunn

The KeepsakeThe 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.

“We swam in water that changed colour by the weather”

RainI’ve read Kirsty Gunn’s novels in mostly antichronological order, but I’ll write about the last two the right way round. Rain, her first, was the last I read, but I think that really contributed to my appreciation of it. How often do we go back and read a newly-beloved author’s back catalogue only to be disappointed by early efforts? Nothing wrong with that either. But Gunn had her act together from the beginning.

At this point I feel like I understand the things she’s interested in. Family is huge: the relationships between mothers and their children, parents and their children, siblings. Featherstone and some short stories deal with aunts, uncles, grandparents, but the mother/child relationship is foremost in the rest of her work.

In Rain, the family takes the form of a boozy mother, a father preoccupied with placating her, a 12-year-old daughter brought up to act like a nice little waitress, and the 5-year-old brother that she cares for most of the time. The parents are physically present but alternate between emotional absence and reckless emotional torture. The children escape during the day to the lake and during the night, when mom and dad are having loud parties with their tipsy friends, to Janey’s room, where they close the door, turn out the light, and pretend to be asleep.

Janey’s life is all about protecting her little brother, Jim Little. She is his mother all day, watching him play at the beach, making him picnic lunches. But she knows their real parents can still “get” them—“It was me he called out for, but it was her soft hair that brushed across his face when she leaned over him in bed at night.” Gunn is already able to bring great depth to her young narrator:

We have to share their lives, their homes and all their tricks. It’s what we’re born to. We grow and lengthen, spawn fills our own sacs, and still they want to keep us as their young. We’re their living, heaving seed. Proof that they ever loved.

Gunn’s other big interest, as I’ve written about before, is place, and above all water and light. Rain is almost completely composed of this, it seems at times. And after reading Gunn write about these things in several novels and stories now, what impresses most is that it’s always different and fresh. And really lushly evocative.

From out of the cleft of bush it came on, a slow deep plough of water carving a smooth passage between the hills, wanting to change. As you came closer you saw how dark the water was, how complicated by shadows from the overhanging growth, how the jade insides of the water were flecked with gold. Trapped below the water’s surface, hanks of pale blond weed washed endlessly downstream. It was so quiet you could hear the water sucking around the strands, so quiet you could hear bubbles of air forming and breaking, the soaken air trying to breathe.

Tension is also a common thread in Gunn’s writing. Everything she describes so poetically is ill-fated. Jim Little is just a slip of a thing; Janey narrates her childhood as an adult but she’s only ever known Jim as a boy. And there’s so much water everywhere. The whole thing is well-managed, and the climax handled much like in Featherstone but, I think, more effective here.

Rain is just a slip of a novel but really fine. I know I’ll be picking this one up again and again for the beautiful language and imagery.

Just wait for him, sea—The Boy and the Sea by Kirsty Gunn

You know how sand pools cool in the shadows when you step into it from out of the sun? Yeah, well that’s how he feels, I think, this boy, when he comes in out of the glare to the deep blueness of the shadows here. Like…It’s relief, I think. To be out of the light in this place where the tall trees hang down their long branches…

The Boy and the SeaThat is the lovely opening of The Boy and the Sea, Kirsty Gunn’s novella about a single day on the beach. Just as she did in Featherstone, she sets up an amazing sense of place from the very first, and an atmosphere. The beach is hot and sunny; that’s where Ward’s friend Alex and the girls they hang out with are talking and sunbathing. But there’s also coolness and shade, where Ward can hang back on his own, watching, looking at the sea, thinking about the way the sand feels under his toes.

Ward and Alex are both surfers, but it’s Ward who is in touch enough with the sea to know about the wave that’s coming later. Quiet and introspective, spending his time at the beach watching the water rather than the girls, he can see “the way the waves are breaking, little chinks and low and even but a creel of white foam there, at the base of the cliff and there’s a rise up past where the cliff juts out, like the water’s backing into itself…And that’s going to come to something later on.”

Ward’s inwardness contrasts with Alex’s sociability, but the friend is hardly a butterfly flitting between social events. In fact, he seems almost more mature. He is able to bridge both worlds: he understands Ward and his shyness and thoughtfulness, but he’s also able to have fun. Of course, what he doesn’t understand is Ward’s relationship with his family.

His family is the reason Ward can see what’s coming later—his father was a surfer too, who moved from up north to this place because he knew about the rare current patterns that would come once in a while and create a truly great wave. Ward struggles throughout with thoughts of his father being with his mother, and the easy physical relationship they still have. The naturalness with which he feels cut off from his protecting mother and alienated by his strong father shows off Gunn’s talents in a very subtle way. Emotions that could be so trite are instead quietly powerful, and the soul of this 15-year-old boy is laid bare so delicately.

It all goes so well with the atmosphere, too. The tension in this day on the beach is deftly managed from that first scene in the shadows through the climax of the great wave until the tired evening. Just 140 pages in the Faber and Faber edition I have, but a good slow burn. I’m completely in love with the poetry in Gunn’s language, and she has such a successful intimacy with her characters’ psychology. I must give thanks to Verbivore, whose posts on Gunn inspired me to read her. How had I never heard of this lovely writer before? People should know about this.

They can read by the sun’s reflection on the horizon what kind of swell will follow…

I’ve been lucky enough in recent weeks to discover deep and genuine attractions to several contemporary writers, that go beyond just a single novel I enjoyed. I did manage to write up Winterson Week, and I’ll be getting to some more Ali Smith as well. But for now, let’s go back to Kirsty Gunn.

When I wrote about Featherstone, I noted the importance of light, and the way the town at the heart of the novel is being continuously viewed and reviewed in different lights, from different angles. A couple weeks ago, Mary McCallum at O Audacious Book posted about Kirsty Gunn’s art of writing, after hearing Gunn speak.

She says an intense sense of place is pivotal in her work as it was in Katherine Mansfield’s: the light, the colour, the setting. And she doesn’t name the places but they are particular places nonetheless. Kirsty says by not naming the places she writes about she protects the privacy of the individual’s sense of place. New Zealanders knew Rain was set in Taupo [there's the lake, the desert road....] but Scots imagined a lake in Scotland, Americans in America…

This made me feel much better about some of the ambiguity I felt reading Featherstone. For ages I was convinced it was an English (or perhaps Scottish) village I was in, then I kept thinking it must have been New Zealand… Given, I could never think that particular villagey nature existed in the States, but it was still strangely unclear. Featherstone itself was so completely fleshed out, yet it existed…where? I like that this is an intentional feature.

The ambiguity is there in The Boy and the Sea as well, though it is much easier to think this must be New Zealand—or could it be Australia?—what with the surfing and all. Either way, it’s the same sense. This beach is so real to me, the sea is so real to me, but where they are situated is not just unreal but incredibly unimportant.

The time of day is important here too, though not so much for the light as for the movement of the sea. In Featherstone we are hyperaware of the sun; in The Boy and the Sea we are—or at least Ward is—hyperaware of the sea. With good reason, of course.

These are just musings. Tomorrow I’ll (try to) really talk about this wonderful little novel and why I actually liked another Bildungsroman.

Featherstone: “Trodden down in your sodden earth, at your river’s dark heart”

To the north, hill/mountain range, it’s colder, and to the east and west is the sea. The south you know already as the place you’ve come from, come so far only to be here, in this small town named for a feather and a stone. The feather drifts on the air, and the stone is a tiny thing you would remove from your shoe, throw down the street to hear the sound of it touch the earth.

So, in part, opens Featherstone by Kirsty Gunn, with an entry from an informational atlas on the “attractive small rural town serving outlying estates.” Verbivore described “the world Gunn creates” as “a bit magic, a bit Hell, mysterious and delicate and dark”; I concur, and I think she did a beautiful job of it too. I’ve read a few complaints from readers who thought Gunn was too in love with her own voice at the expense of plot, but I’m not preoccupied with plot and Gunn really does have a lovely voice. And just because she’s not telling a terribly eventful story doesn’t mean she has nothing to say, either.

On the contrary, Featherstone has its own preoccupations other than plot. One of them is light. Gunn makes me think of a painter doing studies of the same place at different times, in different lights. The sun and time of day are important here.

He looked, with his hands at his forehead that way against the light, and he thought he did know her, though the light was bright on her, and around her bright, and at her back, like foil. It was late, late afternoon.

featherstoneAmusingly, we hear just then that “[t]he sun, however, that was a thing he hadn’t noticed before.” But we’ll notice it over and over, its color changing over the course of the day, the light fading and coming and going and dappling, and never really reaching down into the Reserve, the cool shady place by the river where Ray Weldon likes to go and think of his long-lost love.

Our omniscient third-person narrator has access to the inner lives of each villager in turn, and while we’re with someone we get a bit of stream of consciousness mixed in with the beautiful exposition. This builds up impressionistic pictures of the psychology of each character, something I found very effective and well done. It’s so hard for me to even understand the psychology of so many novels, let alone feel with the characters, but here I was really affected by at least some, especially Sonny and Ray.

Ray’s long-lost love is also Sonny’s long-lost niece, and they are deeply connected through this woman, Francie, who left Featherstone years before never to return. Loss, and longing, and not being able to hold onto someone no matter how hard you grab her, are great problems in the novel. And Kirsty Gunn is good enough to know that one of the things you can’t hold onto, nail down, keep in one place, is longing itself, and emotion. Whenever we hear about Sonny’s or Ray’s relationship with Francie the memories and thoughts are enchanting but, like Francie, so, so slippery. And so hard to communicate, to themselves and each other. Sonny wants badly to share with Ray what he’s learned by the end of the novel.

She was there, she was real—but not in that way you could reach out for her, to take in your arms and hold. She was deep in. Deep like a memory, and vivid, the feeling of her how it is to love someone no matter if they’re there or gone, deep in and it never goes away.

Sonny has just explained to his friend Johnny Carmichael that “I’ve been deep in my thoughts…I’m sorry, but they’re all around us here.” He has a hard time coming up for air, which is just the effect the book had on me as well.