When the trees drown
Saturday 17 December 1994
What is it about water? In Kirsty Gunn's novella it is the central character, alluring and menacing, offering at once "the promise of our destination" and the ultimate threat: "All the trees were drowning". If even the trees succumb to water, what chancecould two small children have?
Knowing from the outset that death can be the book's only outcome, readers are confined to an emotional range from nostalgia to foreboding and dread, a dark palette. With the exception of the lake at its core, Rain's characters are shadowy, flickering i n the gloom of elegiac reminiscence.
Narrated by Janey, the book tells of the summer of her twelfth year, in the family house by the lake, when she and her five-year-old brother Jim Little frolicked unsupervised along the shore while their parents drowned themselves in another liquid entirely, in soused anticipation of their bridge and dancing evenings. These rowdy events frightened the children late into the night. Janey, on the cusp of adolescence, is strongly aware of the gulf between the adult world and childhood, and in c linging to and caring for her brother she is also protecting her own child's soul against the inevitable transformations ahead - sexual awakening, artifice and, in her world, perhaps drunkenness too. "I've planned it, I'll never know a boy," she says. "I t will always be only my brother I'll care for, he needs all my attention and I have no time for the other part."
Jim Little, meanwhile, is playfully oblivious to his significance in the family, as the adored late child of his negligent mother, as the focus and salvation of Janey's otherwise lonely young life, and as the pawn between mother and daughter.
Janey knows that their apparent freedom is hollow ("Who was I to think my parents couldn't get me if they'd wanted to? All children are powerless against the adults who surround them"), and yet their powerlessness is as mythical as their freedom: "Child ren have it in them to bring the ending down." The loss of Jim represents the loss of childhood, and also the end of any pretence of family. The irony is that the pretence was already so faded..
Gunn's prose is often arrest ing and beautiful, and an inter mittent tendency to over-write does not detract from the pleasure of her sentences. Much is left unexplained, or barely hinted at: who is this family? how did they get like this? how do they live the rest of the year? In a short story, such questions could pass unasked; in a longer work, an extended prose poem such as this, they are inescapable.
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