Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Sometimes everything in my little book-reading universe conspires wonderfully and I come across a book, completely by chance, by an author previously unknown to me, with a story and a style perfectly suited to my tastes and expectations. What a good feeling it is to close that back cover, march right over to my book shelves and slip it next to that line of well-worn favorites. I love it when this happens. Not only because I have the memory of a blissful hour spent in the company of some pretty spectacular prose but also because I can now look forward to searching out any other work by this new author.


A week or so ago I ran across a wonderful review by Lily of Kirsty Gunn’s debut novel Rain. Her thoughtful review prompted me to search out the novel and thanks to bookmooch I had a copy in my hands by Saturday morning. This morning, quite happy to take a break from what has been a hectic few days, I sat down out in the garden in the sun and read the entire thing.

Rain is slim even by novella standards but its 95 pages contain some breathtaking writing and a weighty story. One of my favorite “genres” of contemporary fiction is when an author takes an event, most usually a tragedy, and then creates a meditation or a portrait of what that tragedy feels like to a particular character. Even better when the narrator is the character and when that individual’s voice flexes, both subtly and heftily, with the responsibility and familiarity of the event.


I like the intimacy of this type of writing. The way the story works to expand those minutes and seconds of a life-altering moment. The way the details surrounding a significant experience fuse themselves into the scaffolding of memory or regret.


Despite the reader’s knowledge of the book’s tragedy as early as the first paragraph –


Up in that part the water smells rivery. We hadn’t even passed the little bay at the end of the first beach but already the air was touched by the promise of our destination. All the trees were drowning. They reached their long skinny branches into the lake, leaning so far that their gnarled roots could barely hold the clay. You knew it was only time before whole bodies would be dislodged, allowed to drift, then sink. The water would seal over them again and that’s how it would end: you would never know there had been trees there at all.


Rain just throbs with looming threat. Each page circles the event, the danger, the imminent loss. Gunn brings us into a scene, gives us exactly enough confirmation/revelation for us to understand what’s at stake and then moves on, hurtling the reader toward what we already know is coming. That push and pull creates a tremendous pressure.


Despite its brevity, the novella amasses a rich array of subject matter in its wake. This is a story of brokenness, of wanting, of irresponsibility and lost innocence, of parental instinct, of absolute devotion and irremediable loss.



7 Responses to “Kirsty Gunn – Rain”

  1. bookfraud

    the book sounds amazing — i am always impressed with writers who can master multum in parvo, so to speak. a book of less than 100 pages that manages to pack a punch is worth reading, always. and that first paragraph blew me away, which i don’t say about a lot of first paragraphs.

  2. toujoursjacques

    Not to keep bringing up Iris Murdoch, but in a perhaps more cerebral and more philosophical way she works around and around a shared experience, often from several characters’ points of view. But what they’re all trying to get themselves around isn’t necessarily a tragedy in Murdoch; and very often it is merely something they’ve all horribly misread, sometimes to tragic and sometimes to comic ends.
    The other book that comes to mind —perhaps closer in effect—is Morrison’s Beloved. You know something horrible has happened in that shed and—thanks to friends or reviewers—you might even know what it is. But the relentless circling closer and closer is still threatening.
    A lovely review. I’ll be reading this one. Thanks! TJ

  3. Ann Darnton

    I’ve just finished reading Rachel Seiffert’s ‘The Dark Room’ and while it is clearly a very different proposition from this there is the same use of language to give the reader just as much as is needed for them to comprehend the situation but not so much that the responsibility for understanding is taken from them. Thanks for introducing me to this, I’ll look out for it.

  4. verbivore

    Bookfraud – this book was really a great find. Exactly what I needed to read today. Double bonus that its a writer I’d never heard of. Rain was published in 94 so I’m hopeful that Gunn has done something else since then. She also did some pretty cool stuff with POV in this novel as well.

    Jacques – I’m taking Murdoch off the shelf now and putting her on my desk, meaning I will start her this week. I’ve put her off too long. Your comment about Morrison’s Beloved is spot on, that’s exactly what she does in that novel. Such powerful storytelling.

    Ann – I’ve noted Seiffert now which is a new one for me, so thank you! The way Gunn used language was so impressive, she just wrote so incredibly well. A lot of subtlety and that can be so hard for a book with this kind of subject.

  5. TJ

    I wonder if you read my too long response to your comment on my A to Z post. It said I wasn’t sure Bruno’s Dream was the best place to start with Murdoch, but I know that’s the one you have on your shelf—so dig in. Your mention of it sparked my own urge to reread that particular Murdoch novel, and I’m really enjoying it. I am eager to talk about it with you. FYI I am putting up an all Murdoch page on my site where we could do that. Yes! you and your Gordimer project have had an influence…. I’m doing a 5 year Murdoch romp, (ten year? there are 27 novels, plus poems, philosophy, and essays, so probably 10 years) start to finish, with a few well-chosen skips. Well…evidently I’m starting in the middle with Bruno’s Dream, but then back to the beginning with her book on Sartre (1953) and her first novel Under the Net (1954).

  6. verbivore

    Jacques – I went and read it this morning, I don’t know how I missed it before. I did, however, start Bruno’s Dreams last night but just a few pages. I can see that I will LOVE Murdoch’s style. Still, maybe I will put this one down and start one of the others you mentioned first. I’m impressed with your plan to go through Murdoch now, that’s wonderful! And I’m thrilled that I’ll be able to read your thoughts on your blog as you go through. That will be a great treat- especially as I get to know her work as well.

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