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.