Stories about storytelling: Kirsty Gunn’s preoccupation with words is utterly entrancing

For a marvellous unravelling of women’s minds read Infidelities by Kirsty Gunn, suggests Sophia Waugh in a review of this latest volume of short stories

3 January 2015

9:00 AM

3 January 2015

9:00 AM

Infidelities Kirsty Gunn

Faber, pp.207, £12.99, ISBN: 9780571308910

Although entitled Infidelities this collection of short stories could as well be
called Choices, because that is what really preoccupies Kirsty Gunn’s characters. Divided into three sections, ‘Going Out’, ‘Staying Out’ and ‘Never Coming Home’, the stories are more linked by style and writing than by any theme. Gunn’s style is clear, unaffected and poetic without being pretentious; her descriptions of nature — for instance the sky at the beginning of ‘The Wolf on the Road’ — are at times almost painfully beautiful.

One stylistic technique she favours is not always as successful as her descriptive writing; often in a story she will slip from a narrative voice to an authorial one, from the past to the present. So in ‘The Father’, a Highland story seen from the point of view of children, we have ‘he’d show them how to do it, he’d show them the way’ and then ‘Cassie remembers to this day him saying…’ This intervention of a current voice, a teller of the story, becomes irritating, and reaches its climax in the title tale ‘Infidelity’, in which the character becomes a writer who is writing a short story about her own experience; but how much of it is her experience and how much of it is just story? Had it stood on its own, it might have been an interesting story about writing, but we have seen so much of this method in the stories coming before, that it has become more mannered than effective.

Gunn writes about storytelling as much as about infidelity or choice. Elements of this are lovely; her preoccupation with words is more than just ‘writerly’. The way she will break off from a train of thought to follow one about the significance of a particular word is entrancing.

And ‘embankment’ again. See? She wants to stop the story right here with that word. It is a beautiful, beautiful word. It rises up before Helen like a bed and all she wants to do is lie down.

Gunn recognises that some of us really do think in words, stopping and mentally tasting them before we continue on our way.

She remembers how, that morning, certain phrases — new bride, new-minted, and so on — had actually occurred to her in words, one after the next, like words following each other on a page.

The stories are women’s stories — they consider relationships, power play, our responsibilities and the questions we are inevitably led to ask ourselves about our own choices and our own lives. The men in this collection do not come across well. A child overhears her mother saying, ‘We don’t do men’, and the same could really be said of Gunn. Marriage is too often seen as a safe, but perhaps cowardly, choice:

It was why she’d married Bobby, wasn’t it? To try to protect herself against that feeling [of uncertainty and fear]? It was why she listened to him, let him go on and on. As though she might turn her life into a story told by someone else — one of his stories in fact — like a story might calm a person and quieten them in the dark, fill the void with words and phrases and sentences that they might go to sleep.

The fathers are not much better. One disappears over a cliff, another ‘gives’ his daughter to a local garagiste, others are just notable by their absence, as are the few ‘good’ men such as the husband in ‘Elegy’.

At their best, these stories are a marvellous unravelling of women’s minds and a clever exploration of the links between writing and living, between conventionality and nature.

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