Kirsty Gunn: This Place You Return To Is Home

Kirsty Gunn
This Place You Return To Is Home
Atlantic Monthly Press

Where do you call home? Maybe your home is in "a part of the country you forgot about until you were back in the middle of it"; where you're "only part of a family now"; and where "there was nothing Nan could do to protect us." Home is where "nobody would come stay... once his father had gained the habit of tacking dead animal skins to the walls"; a place that "smelled of stomachs. Or maybe it was brains." It's where you're "lifting the bottle out of the freezer, feeling the oily plug of the drink seal my night"; or where a wild animal is coming to capture and kill you. This place you return to, in short, is a very dark place--at least it is in the universe of writer Kirsty Gunn.

Gunn is no stranger to these parts. The author of two acclaimed novels, Rain and The Keepsake, she brings to this collection of stories, This Place You Return To Is Home, all the edginess of her previous work: the hints of repressed rage, the echoes of psychosis and perversion, and the flailing way young children, usually siblings, try to protect themselves and each other from these developed terrors. For Gunn, domestic life is a cauldron of fear and loathing barely contained by the comfortable fiction of four sturdy walls. Such subject matter might seem sensational, but Gunn negates this complaint through her clipped language and haunting tone. Instead of imitating the didacticism of a movie of the week, this New Zealander offers something more along the lines of Peter Weir's cinematic opus Picnic at Hanging Rock, a moody meditation on disappearance. At its best, her pacing is hypnotic. She lures the reader with images that are mere brush strokes, lines that deftly say everything by refusing to say anything. But such strategies can seem precious and affected, and Gunn's lyricism can sometimes derail the rest of the story, as in this short passage, where the description of a storm's menace hovers too long in the frame: "Nan reckons rain. Feels the big, sticky clouds, she says, pumpkin yellow and mean as a man's eye, piling up over the far mountains. In her mind's eye she sees it, the storm. Brewing to pour and the air aching for it. The poor ground's dusty mouth gaping for water."

While the stories in this book are all thematically connected, some seem like sketches for longer works, as if they'd been deliberately stunted for inclusion here. Nowhere is this more evident than in the opening two stories, "Not that much to go on" and "Not that much to go on: 2," character studies that could easily form the basis for a novel but are woefully inchoate as short fiction.

Thankfully, the more fully realized stories carry the day. "The meatyard" and "Jesus, I know that guy" (the only stories, incidentally, told from a male point of view) are brilliant dissections of how loneliness turns to sociopathy when mixed with a little testosterone or alcohol. "Tinsel Bright" begins, "Years before Moma divorced my Dad he used to dress up as a fairy for the hospital every Christmas Day," and then smartly unravels all the implications packed into that sentence (even why the mother is nicknamed after the Museum of Modern Art). And "The things he told her" draws a line between the sexes with a serrated knife.

Like the title story, these tales bravely explore what it means to feel. For all its minor limitations, This Place You Return To Is Home succeeds in imagining the desolation inside our safest places.

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