I discovered Kirsty Gunn, a writer from New Zealand who now lives in Scotland, through her first novel, a novella really, called Rain. I remember taking this slim little book off the shelf one day last spring, stretching out on a chair in the garden and not putting it down until I turned the last page about an hour and a half later. Rain was positively enchanting. Very poetic, very descriptive but with a powerful story peeking out from beneath all that beautiful language.
Since then I’ve been on the lookout for more of her work and at some point this Fall I ordered her third novel, Featherstone, published in 2002, which I finally started to read last week and which has already found a home on my favorite’s shelf.
Featherstone is a collage, a collage which when finally finished creates a portrait of the complexity and intricacy of longing. The story begins on a Friday evening in the town of Featherstone, takes up with a number of Featherstone’s residents and then wraps up early Sunday morning with the aftermath of tragedy. The reader spends a few short hours inside this bewildering world and then is asked to leave it as abruptly as he was welcomed within. These aren’t really characters you will be taking with you, if that makes any sense, because they would dissolve when removed from this place. The world Gunn creates is a bit magic, a bit Hell, mysterious and delicate and dark.
There is a story in Featherstone – the presumed reappearance of a young woman who left years and years before, who left quite a hollow in the wake of her departure – but that preoccupation is minor compared to the gentle exploration of each different character and their own particular landscape of longing. The overall effect is quite sad, but not hopelessly so. And everyone is given a sense of beauty, though stark, and the ability to face-off with despair.
I was unsettled and a little confused by the ending, but instead of it irritating me, as might a different book, I can’t help taking this as an invitation to pick up the novel again and read it slowly a second time. It’s a book that wants careful consideration. Gunn’s prose style is, as I mentioned before, extremely poetic. And unapologetically so. She gets right inside her character’s thoughts and gives the reader their uncertainties, their illogical thinking, their emotional bartering and the way they worry at the tenderest of their wounds.
Gunn has four other books, including two novels, The Keepsake (1997) and The Boy and the Sea (2006), a collection of short stories called This Place You Return to is Home (1999), and a book of personal reflections, 44 Things (2007). I can’t recommend her enough and will just finish this with a passage from Featherstone, so you can see for yourself:
The air rustled again outside the window, and again Harland had the sensation of someone so close, so close she could touch him, like he could feel her breath moving across his skin. He was stirred again, as he was before, stirred deep within him, by the touch, by the sensation fo touch. The scent was still there in the air, close to him, watery, rivery, mingled with the scent of the leaves and trees and grasses, the scent of a shadow, a thing too small and soft to ever be a wife.