Our mother stood at the window looking out across the lake. Her dark-blue and pink dress was hanging open at the back so we could see, anybody could see, the deep line of her shoulders and her smooth tan.
I heard her ask, ‘Can someone get me a cigarette?’
Jim Little was dancing around my father, his voice getting louder and louder.
‘A cape that flies. A cape that flies,’ he was chanting, and my father kept saying ‘Anything! Anything!’ and pretending to catch him.
‘I said, can someone get me – ‘
Suddenly everything was quiet. My father scrabbled for the Rothmans on the bar. I saw how his fingers dug into the packet to take one out.
‘Quick,’ he said to me. ‘Give it to your mother. Be that little waitress, honey.’
I love short novels. I got asked yesterday why I’d spend £8 on something that’s not even half-the-size of a standard novel. Think about it: would you prefer a huge portion of chocolate-flavour cake that was so lacking in chocolate goodness that you could taste the flour and sugar or, would you rather a smaller, darker, more intense slice of chocolate gooey-stickiness that had so much punch in the flavour your tongue was still being tickled when you went to bed? Ever seen the Mona Lisa? Tiny picture. Giacometti‘s sculptures? Scrawny.
Rain is a first novel, published by Faber back in 1994 – sufficiently long ago that I was still at university which seems like a life-time ago – but this novel is as fresh and as clear as if it had been released yesterday. The bestsellers that people were reading then included Anne Rice, Tom Clancy and… well, you get the idea: dated stuff. Kirsty Gunn’s words won’t go out of fashion because she was wise enough – skilled and practiced enough – to focus very tightly on a very special set of characters. This is storytelling as portraiture.
The premise of the story is that a twelve-year-old – the narrator – has been left to look after her five-year-old brother, Jim Little, while her parents spend the long summer days by the lakeside alternately sunbathing and drinking. The nights are filled with intoxicated parties that the children must try and live around, always with the threat that some nights will be so warm and loud that they will not be able to sleep or that adults will wander into their room while looking for a vacant bed. In stories such as this, there is always a tragedy for the story is about change: how it came about, how it may have been prevented and what became of everyone.
Kirsty Gunn has taken a different tack. In filtering the perceptions of that summer through a twelve-year-old girl, she is holding up a mganifying glass to how adults really appear: their dreams dashed, hopes fading, insecurities open to scrutiny and only the prospect of a repeat of today to look forward to tomorrow. Tragedy then is like a gift to such mundane people.
In preparing the link to Amazon, I read the review posted by Kirkus Review. It’s worth reading to get a balanced opinion but also to see why bad reviews don’t work: they only show up how little on occasion a reviewer has understood. This short novel does more in its 96 pages than most can do in 10 times that length. The method employed is simple and so obvious, I’m surprised the Kirkus reviewer missed it. I was reminded of an interview with Prince that I read some years ago: he was asked why his music is so different from anyone else’s. His reply actually changed how I listened to music, for he said that while most people are focused on the notes, a great musician was focused on the spaces between the notes. This is also true of great stories: words are only those moments between the action when you may stop to draw breath or to blink, the story is what is happening between times, when your imagination is actively engaged.