Sept/Oct 1999 Book Reviews

This Place You Return To Is Home

Kirsty Gunn
Granta, 1996 200pp
ISBN: 1 86207 235 3

reviewed by Ann Skea

Home, in this book could be anywhere. It is a place of memories, dreams, fears and horrors: a place to escape from, or to, or both. For each of the individuals in these stories home is as different as they are from each other.

There is a curious thread of disturbance - of something not quite right in the lives of these people, but two of the stories, in particular, are extraordinary. Not so much in their content, as in the powerful way Kirsty Gunn conveys the feelings and thoughts of the people involved.

Carolina, in 'The things he told her', fights a growing sense of isolation and panic. In the midst of a seemingly ordinary, ordered and happy family life - a farm, three children, a loving husband - she feels inexplicably threatened. The coming winter harshness; the boys' exuberance, their eagerness for adventure and their over-confidence; her husband's male aggressiveness, directed only playfully at her; all make her fearful. When a wild boar begins to take animals on the farm, her fear finds a focus but danger, blood and slaughter tip her into hysterical panic.

Kirsty Gunn conveys the mixed and disturbed patterns of Carolina's thinking subtly but so powerfully that the reader shares the growing sense of menace and fear, if not Carolina's panic or its resolution.

The title story, too, which is the last story in the book, is strong, unusual and moving. Unlike any of the other stories it is prefaced by a dedication: "For M.G. and M.G. - in memory", and it is a loving and sad remembering of the narrator's twin sister, Laura. Laura was "the smallest child with the twisty limbs, with her funny sentences, with her pixie smile". And we gradually understand that Laura's reality is different to that of others: that she lives in a world of touch and movement and song and emotions which she cannot always control.

Laura's sister and her grandmother seem able to understand her and calm her but, in the end, this is not enough. Parents, at the end of their tether, move to protect themselves.

Laura's twin sister accuses but understands:

"Cruel for you, mother, I can see that now, to have so twisted away that second beautiful damaged child from your sight".

Cruel, too, for the sister whose love shines through this story. And especially cruel for the grandmother, told by phone "We've decided", and unable any more to protect her darling child.

Gunn's style is unusual. She captures fragments of thought and emotion in a way which conveys the feelings of her story-tellers. She seems, too, to have a special sympathy for those whose mental state is just slightly off-key and whose actions might be considered a little odd.

This is not to say that these stories are about the mentally defective. Only, that they convincingly convey the wide range of behaviour which society, thankfully, is generally able to adapt to and accept as normal. There are truths and fears and needs and frailties here which are wholly human and which are shown us by a very skilful storyteller.


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