Now you see her, now you don't. Peek-a-boo. Hide-and-seek. Is there anyone there? On this principle, children play for security, art practises its magic, and religions premise an indwelling presence. Kirsty Gunn's ambitious novel, set in the fictional backwater town of Featherstone, uses a technique of incantatory lyricism to suggest mysterious presence, brimming behind banal surfaces.
Eight characters are affected by the sighting of a revenant, Francie, whose disappearance had left the town's residents to chew the cud of their unsatisfactory days. The novel is structured as a ripple of epiphanies, in which Francie's imagined return culminates in the rape of a girl mistaken for her. She, along with the rapist, becomes a sacrificial victim, bearing the stigmata of atonement. All are, somehow, saved.
If there were more reality to the town and less glowingly arty poeticism, the device might succeed. "There was a cry: 'I see her!' Then, 'Gone!' 'Where are you?"' Towards the end, no one seems to know where anyone has gone. "She could be here, now; where you are," the novelist instructs the reader. This is too much. I want Francie kept inside this novel, and if possible locked up. Come to think of it, there don't seem to be any police in Featherstone to catch the rapist: they would be a big help.
Gunn bathes the little town of her novel with a phantasmagorical gloss of glamour, in Keatsian light and dark, scent and ripeness, climaxing in the invocation, "Featherstone, can you help him? [the rapist]... Can you show the way?" Swooning golden light gilds the field of vision. Words like "beautiful", "lovely", "light" and "wait" recur in a mesmeric trance of softly sliding grammar, founded on apposition and repetition: "this blue, this bright".
Hence nothing seems to move. The town is nowhere, its people indeterminate and mystically inclined, or plain daft. "You're a woman, you should know where women are," ejaculates one of Featherstone's dimmer wits.
Take Wuthering Heights: the name Heathcliff is composed of "heath" and "cliff"; a lost woman's presence is agonisingly intuited. But the novel's power lies in Emily Brontë's tact and reticence. In Featherstone, allegory and symbolism are in-your-face: the author cannot trust her reader but periodically drills us in the theodicy she seeks to evoke.
In Wuthering Heights characters are earthed in dialect and the detailed landscape of a working world. But Gunn seeks the universal in a floating location which is always a mental construct, neither her native New Zealand nor Scotland, where she now lives. Lack of specificity makes the sense of immanent grace vague and incredible.
A pity, because the idea is beguiling and individual passages carry intense authenticity, especially when Gunn is attending to the privacy of her characters' experience: the weight of Kate's wet hair "painted down upon her shoulders and back". Characters live in isolation, unrecognised by kin or neighbours, until the "returned" Francie joins their points of consciousness in a circle of recognition. So, at least, we are told to believe.
The reviewer's novel 'The Element of Water' recently won the Arts Council of Wales Book of the Year prize
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