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Caroline's Bikini by Kirsty Gunn

Kirsty Gunn’s new book is a book about writing a book. There are only three main protagonists. Emily Stuart has been asked by an old friend, Ewan Gordonston, to help him tell the story of his love for Caroline Beresford. Evan has returned to London after many years living in the USA. Relocated to the London office of some high flying finance job, he needs somewhere to live.

Someone suggests lodging in the home of Caroline Beresford, with her three teenage sons and often absent husband David. Evan pays a visit and BANG (as he describes it). As he watches the tall, elegant Caroline in T-shirt and wrap-around skirt walking down the corridor, tying her long blonde hair into a loose pony-tail, smelling the sweet scent of orange that trails around her, Evan is smitten. He is in love. So he calls on Emily to help him write the story. To tell all, in this modern day love story. Evan and Emily meet in a series of London pubs to drink gin and tonic and write the story. Evan provides notes and Emily embellishments.

And that is it. There is virtually nothing else to the story. All we have is the telling of it. I’m a big fan of Kirsty Gunn. I loved her short stories in the collection ‘Infidelities’ and the description of her Katherine Mansfield project while living at Randell Cottage in Thorndon. But here I was disappointed, mainly by the lack of plot and action. Too much was similar; repetition, going back over, looking back at what we had already heard. There were frustrating elements like footnotes that dogged what felt like almost every page in the first two sections. The asterisks that denoted a footnote were so small that they were easily missed, caught up amongst other punctuation. If you saw there was a footnote, you were distracted by looking for the asterisk, or if you arrived at the bottom of the page without noticing the footnote first, then you had to scan back over the page looking for the position in order to see it in context. And then of course we come to what is called ‘Some Other Material’. More than sixty pages of notes and detail about what sits behind the narrative. Some of this was fascinating, and had more going on than the book itself.

I wasn’t expecting a thriller. I knew this was going to be a tale of a ‘classic love affair’, but I did want more to happen. That is not to say that there was nothing to like. As Emily and Evan develop their story together, they meet in a series of appropriately named pubs to drink increasingly unusual types of gin and tonic. From the simple Gordons and Bombay Sapphire to strange herbal infusions and tonic flavours to be stirred with rosemary stems. I loved the way that the names and atmosphere of the pubs would come to represent the moods of the two collaborators. From The Cork and Bottle and The Gin Whistle, to The Grapes of Wrath and The Pincushion, to The Last Stand and finally the grim corridor-like establishment, The Empty Barrel, that seemed to lurk under the Hammersmith Flyover. I thought I would have to scan back through the book for all those names, but instead found them all listed in one of the sections of ‘Some Other Material’, after ‘Narrative Construction’ and ‘Linguistic Variations’.

I decided to leave the Other Material until the end, and not follow the trail of footnotes back and forth. I’m glad that I did, as some hints of the outcome of the story had crept into those pages. Sometimes I wondered if the Other Material would be there at all, if it might be some sort of trick, but they were real and often interesting, with explanations of courtly love in Dante and Petrarch and more detail about an ‘amanuensis’, a word that turned up often in the story and means a person that takes dictation, as Emily does for Evan and as Milton’s sisters did with Paradise Lost.

I really wanted this to be more fun than it turned out to be.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Published by Faber and Faber RRP $32.99


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