Not the Wairarapa? Shelagh Duckham Cox

Kirsty Gunn
Faber & Faber,  $34.95,
ISBN 0571212476

The epigraph is an entry in an imagined handbook. It provides information you’d expect from a motoring guide about a small town you’ve never visited before, and it’s in the same format as the page which follows it – an extract from the Scottish AA Road Book, the real one. Kirsty Gunn – well, a Kirsty Gunn – travelled round the base of the Cairngorms with her family in a motorhome in winter and published a chatty piece about the experience in The Scotsman of 29th December, 2001. 

The novel doesn’t tell me this; the Internet does. So – so what? The urge to discover where you are going to find yourself when you start on the text arises as soon as you open the book. “EC:Wed”, it says in the unknown town’s road book entry; Wednesday is Early Closing Day which means the setting is thoroughly British. But the town’s name is Featherston with an extra “e” which points to the Wairarapa. Then the entry goes on to say “this place is named for a feather from a small bird that you could lay across your cheek, and for a stone, a tiny thing you would remove from your shoe”, whereas Featherston was named after Dr Isaac Featherston (1813-76), first Superintendent of Wellington Province.

Nothing is to be as it seems, then. But literal-minded perplexity rapidly gives way to a response more worthy of the novel’s quality. From the opening scene in an old man’s garden, the sense of being somewhere new and numinous is as palpable as in the previous novels – the Portuguese café in The Keepsake or the lake and its beach in Rain. The Featherstone church, pub, children’s playground, milkbar, houses, aren’t anywhere we’ve been or imagined, but – strangely – they are deeply familiar.

In an interview some years ago, Kirsty Gunn said she was influenced by Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious. There’s a common pool of memory and archetypes. We’ve all come from that pool originally and return to it over and over again in the course of our lives – sometimes glancingly but often deeply in reveries or dreams, and always with a sense of recognition. A girl, who’s left the town long ago, returns – or does she? Wrong question. She’s glimpsed out of the corner of many eyes and is not only remembered over the course of a weekend in late summer but compels the principal characters’ hearts and actions. Seen or unseen, it’s her ghostly presence that matters.

Characters interact in small-town ways. The barmaid eyes up a travelling salesman. A mother and her teenage daughter quarrel. A local keeps a neighbourly eye on the old man with the garden. But the main line of communication is to what people know through plumbing down to the well they keep inside them. It’s there that they dissolve and reach out to one another as they should, whatever losses they endure and whatever wrongs they inflict. Once they go down deep enough and submerge themselves in darkness, once they admit the paradox of the unconscious, love is their motive force.

Love permeates this novel: ecstasies from “The Song of Solomon”, bleakness of spirit when love’s lacking, the intricacies of family affection, a man’s constancy of heart for a long-lost woman, reverence for the natural world. Kirsty Gunn creates love on the page with as sure a touch as she creates the light and colour of the Wairarapa in high summer. It turns out that Featherstone is in the Wairarapa, after all; the clues build up and up, though because it’s also nowhere and everywhere the physical and metaphysical are never entirely separable. The writing is complex and vivid, lyrical and compelling, whether it’s about a philosophic issue or a bad driving surface or both at once: “it’s like she can see time all around her: in the way the sun catches the broken tarmac of the little overgrown road.”

Rain was Kirsty Gunn’s first novel, and it brought a new kind of magic to contemporary writing. That magic unwound like a thread between the children’s refuge by the water and their parents’ alcoholic household. The forward-moving line was strong and steeped in the tragedy to come but that’s what it was, a line, and it had the thinness of a line. Featherstone, in contrast and eight years later, is a work of thickness. It’s pressed into rotundity. We stay still to try and comprehend its density at the same time as we’re swept on by the story to its end. Always there’s layer upon layer beneath us. and each layer is built up from memories, connections between people, precise but fleeting images, thoughts that are elemental and a pervading sense of spirit. Sometimes the sheer quantity of stuff spills out of its casing into a moment of overwriting at the top of the thick package, or into the banal at the bottom. That fault may be put right in the published version: I’ve been reading the book in an advanced proof copy and – so it appears – before an editor’s been through it.

And a certain level of “uncontrol” feels endemic to a book of such originality and power – the way there’s uncontrol in a Wairarapa summer. Fecundity means abundant gardens, but it also means the power of the bush to consume stray living creatures. Excess is sexual joy in an assignation by the river, but that same river changes course, erodes and floods.

Amongst all the twitchy talk about forging a New Zealand identity in the 21st century, Gunn’s new novel appears. And it simply has that sense of identity. It takes us to a place that’s both here and not here: it remains where it is set while it plunges down into what it is to be human, and so spreads out to take its artistic place in the wider world.


Shelagh Duckham Cox is a Wellington writer.


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