Published NZ Listener 21/2/98
Thorndon on the edge of Wellington City is Katherine Mansfield territory. And it’s just around the corner from the restored Mansfield house, that UK- based author, Kirsty Gunn went to school.
Gunn’s first two novels ‘Rain’ and ‘The Keepsake’ have been received with critical acclaim. ‘Rain’ went into reprint in the UK after just a year, and was published in paperback in the USA. It has been translated into seven European languages and Communicado will begin production of the film of ‘Rain’ early next year.
Gunn has been compared to Katherine Mansfield in the way she portrays children in an adult dominated world. Like Mansfield she uses deceptively simple but rich language to create an environment which the reader is drawn into. The players are almost like puppets in these lush landscapes- ‘Rain’ is delicately painted in water colour hues while ‘The Keepsake’ is told with slashes of visceral colour.
The parallels with Mansfield go even deeper. Like her literary predecessor Gunn was unhappy in Wellington and following a short trip to the United Kingdom returned there permanently in 1983 when she went to Oxford University to complete a post graduate arts degree. She explains her self imposed exile thus:
“New Zealand didn’t have an imaginative reality for me because of the way I was brought up. With grandparents born in Scotland, we were not only brought up with the Scottish culture and stories, but the feeling that ‘home’ was somewhere on the other side of the world.”
“I think of the weird juxtaposition of being brought up in a Scottish colonial atmosphere, the very British kind of street we lived in and then at the end of the street the Khandallah Reserve – that thick pelt of bush with trees and plants I had no names for.”
After finishing at Oxford, Gunn had a variety of jobs in London and New York from writing dog food commercials to working for “Brides” magazine covering weddings and writing the problem page. In the mid-1980’s she worked as a coat girl at Nells- the hottest Manhattan club of the day.
While living in New Zealand Gunn had been unable to write about the country and its people but discovered its images and metaphors as soon as she left, and for now, New Zealand provides her imaginative reality. Her next novel is set in a small fictional Wairarapa-like town where men drink DB and Tui beer, the kids hang around in the milk bar at night and when the pub door is flung open, there is the sound of voices and bottles and the racing on tv.
“My trips to New Zealand are full of meaning now and quite solemn – all my childhood is there. There is a whole thing going on for me with language and colour and the sheer lonely amazing look of the place.”
When ‘Rain’ was published in 1994, many New Zealanders claimed it as their own. Lines like: “All along the desert road he had to keep his headlights on, that’s how dark the sky was, like steel ; any minute he reckoned thunder” are so familiar that each one of us could have been there.
But while Gunn draws inspiration from New Zealand, she says readers have responded to a sense of ‘placelessness’ in her work. She received letters about ‘Rain’ from all over the world – Maine, Norfolk, the Highlands of Scotland and Sweden – from people saying it reminded them of their childhood summers.
“I’m not aiming to write a New Zealand fiction. While I use it as my imaginative source, my aim is to create a place in the reader’s mind that is familiar and known. I guess I’m quite influenced by Jung and the notion of a collective unconsciousness – I’m trying to access that pool of memory in my work.”
“I like to write from a child’s perspective because I believe all of our childhoods come out of a private but deeply known place and people respond to stories about childhood because in a sense we were all there and in many senses we all played together. I read somewhere recently that all art has the quality of recognition – I really believe that” Gunn says.
Whether it be this sense of recognition or the organic layers of dense, descriptive text in Gunn’s work, many readers of ‘Rain’ and ‘The Keepsake’ have believed that the stories were true. At readings people have often commiserated with her about ‘the death of her little brother’ or ‘the abuse of her sister’. Has Kirsty Gunn been abused? – is a question often asked by readers of ‘The Keepsake’ which deals with the generational effects of incest.
“No, no, no. With ‘The Keepsake’ I had this image of a young woman kept within a dark house – her mind. She is someone with no meaning. I wanted to find out who is she? Will she be alright? Will she get out of that house into the light?”
“I wanted her to be all of us – that notion of when do our own lives really begin quite separate from our parents. Indeed, can they begin? By the end of the book, I was happy to discover that yes, we can have our own lives and the casting off of the old need not be done with disgust but with sympathy and love.”
Gunn will return to New Zealand later in the year to assist with pre-production for the film of ‘Rain’. In the meantime she is looking forward to moving to Perthshire while her Scottish husband, David Graham studies at university; and where she will work on her third novel set in that small New Zealand town in her mind.