Sophia Waugh

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

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.

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