Flaying a dead horse

THE KEEPSAKE by Kirsty Gunn Granta pounds 14.99

Certain writers include the reader in their temperature and it feels like a shared fever. Kirsty Gunn is such a writer. Her style refuses to explain, which is a good thing, and is suggestively unrooted to the extent that it reads as though it's in translation, which could be a good thing, and it has a tendency of plot that is so conformist in its outreness that it could have been imagined by Salvador Dali; which is not a good thing.

Each time the reader surrenders to the dreamy voluptuous unpleasantness of Gunn's vermiculate world, he is repelled. This is, as the author wills it, suggestive of the book's profounder theme. The narrator of the book is a woman who has been raised by a mother maimed by love. This mother is a beautiful garnet-haired drug addict stupefied by her betrayed love for the father of the "I" who is telling us her silky tale. At the time of reading, I was not sure if the story's unplacedness is a virtue or a manifestation of authorial idleness; this is on account of the poreless confidence of Kirsty Gunn's writing. She is sure-footed as a French first novelist of 17. Her understanding of the elastic English language is present but narrow, as though she has never had veg but mainlined the purest nectar, which is a substance best spread Marmite-thin on our language, or it sickens, and so kills. Trainspotting is, beside this book, a model of imaginative extension and wit.

In spite of this, The Keepsake is not an unserious nor a wholly decadent book. Kirsty Gunn is a talented articulatrix of hysteria and its twin, over-control. Certain usages give the lie to Gunn's poise, however. She understands the word "like" in the sense of "as though". This is fine, were it not solecistic in the necessarily timeless mode in which her tale must be set in order to have any weight. The daughter - content for years to live in one room accompanied only by her seemingly incomeless but expensively dressed and Class A drug-using Mama and an old horse-skin wrap (the "Keepsake" itself) - writes, of that mother and her father, who has left for good but also "for a packet of cigarettes":

"At first she went to the hospital for more prescriptions, then she started going to the streets - she couldn't believe he'd left, couldn't. She kept the skin on the sofa that he'd given her and lay on it, stroked it, like the dead animal might bring him back."

Until Gunn can achieve the feat of writing prose that is purged of such tethering tics, she should be warier. Throughout this potently cheap and yet elegant book one feels the disconcerting bit of pastiche in the mouth of a woman who is a) clearly a natural writer, b) someone who should read Jigsaw by Sybille Bedford, a novel about the same subject, but so much more roundly addressed that what we feel steaming off it is not dry ice but real life.

Here is a writer with ten fingers who is offering a five-finger exercise. We know with the first bite of the confection what will happen. There is a tooth-rot latent in the initial sugar, and the triteness aches. It is hard unless you are deficient in kindness, experience or imagination not to long for the end of books that begin with sweet pastries and end like it was inevitable with hot sex within the flayed skin of a tormented dumb animal (they do it inside the skin of a horse just stripped off its skin). Gunn should look at Titian and read, while she's about it, Robin Robertson's poem "The Flaying of Marsyas". It's too easy to convey the familiar tonic scale of pain without the chromatics. To do so when one is the possessor of talent is a real abuse. It's clear, and to be hoped, that Kirsty Gunn will write more, and that her style will meet the worthy match of subject matter it deserves.

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