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.

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin