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.

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
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.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions