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.
MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word
Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Exodus Gods and Kings: Ridley Scott never considered casting 'Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such' in lead role
- 2 This letter from a reader explains why women can’t play football
- 3 'You should come to my house and eat cheeses with me': 4-year-old sends adorable love letter to girl at school
- 4 Scientists predict green energy revolution after incredible new graphene discoveries
- 5 Michael Buerk wishes he'd killed Jimmy Savile when he had the chance - by pushing him overboard a cruise ship
I'm A Celebrity 2014: Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' close to camp
Jennifer Lawrence scores first UK top 40 single with Hunger Games track 'The Hanging Tree'
Exodus Gods and Kings: Ridley Scott never considered casting 'Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such' in lead role
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
The Fall, series 2, episode 3 – TV review: It’s starting to push the realms of plausibility, but who cares?
Ukip says babies born to immigrants in the UK should be classed as migrants – which would include Nigel Farage’s own children
Obama: The only people with the right to object to immigration are Native Americans
The young are the new poor: Sharp increase in number of under-25s living in poverty, while over-65s are better off than ever
Tamir Rice: 12-year-old boy playing with fake gun dies after being shot by Ohio police
Rochester aftermath: Sacking of Emily Thornberry will make work of Labour MPs '10 times harder'
Ukip mocked after mistaking Westminster Cathedral – for a mosque