rev. of Rain by Kirsty Gunn

Issue #66
Spring 1995

A novel by Kirsty Gunn. Grove/Atlantic, $15.00 cloth. Reviewed by Jessica Dineen.

In New Zealander Kirsty Gunn’s first novel,
Rain, twelve-year-old Janey and her five-year-old brother, Jim, fight the loss of their innocence as their parents’ world encroaches upon them. They live by an enormous lake, where they play alone, seduced by the solace and mystery of the water, while their parents fill the house with adults each night for raucous parties. Only occasionally do Janey and Jim pass through the drunken adult world, their mother’s earrings “jangling” and bracelets “clicking,” ice “clinking” in the glasses. Their parents and guests view the children as objects of entertainment, jostling and frightening the small, delicate Jim, whom they all want to touch, as Janey is trapped by the lewd attention of men. Always, the children escape to the dark lakeside, where they “glide into the shallows like eels, the silky black water parting, closing behind us without a sound. On into the deep we swim, out to where the lake is lapping into endless night.”

The ebb and flow of Gunn’s prose, her unabashedly sensuous and precise description, draws the reader into Janey’s perceptions as she narrates the story. For her, the passage of time the seasonal swelling of the lake, darkening of the sky, deepening of the water as the children swim offshore is both terrifying and inviting. After all, she does love her spent, hungover parents, and feels an inevitable pull toward that adulthood of bright lipstick and swishing dresses. But she is bound by the need to protect Jim, and in doing so, she hopes to preserve herself, stave off adolescence: “The lovely bend of his fine limbs was the dream I had for my own body, to be light and careless and . . . in endless, continuous motion of flight.”

Rain is not without flaws. At times the theme of impending change seems forced, and the story less that one hundred pages long, more a novella than a novel-is too thinly told in places, but Gunn’s haunting book is redeemed by its sheer grace. Janey’s fear of seeing the depth of her parents’ failures is poignant and ironic, for their true failure has been in wasting their lives, becoming a shallow, “dried out” remnant, merely “what was left,” of a promising past.

The book ends tragically, and the sad impossibility of real escape for the children is no surprise traces of doom are present throughout the story. Gunn concludes
Rain with language from a manual on life-saving techniques, and while the effect seems artsy at first, the passage very skillfully affords the reader with a sudden objectivity. The tragedy is turned before us like one of the mother’s jewels, and the loss seems more terrible for its clarity, the story more compelling.