From the metafictional introduction, we know from the start that we are in the hands of an assured writer, one who has completed their apprenticeship and is now in the process of completing the books she will be known for.
That this book won the Edge Hill prize is no guarantee of quality, but it’s shortlisting for the Frank O’Connor is. And even if the gatekeepers of such prizes tend to follow suit, one from the other, inclusion in both is generally a fair guide. This is a collection of stories interested in storytelling itself, and I bet the judges loved that.
Richard Ford wrote a great collection of short stories about infidelity called Women with Men, a book that received a mixed critical reception, with Ford flogged in some quarters for the fact that most of his characters were middle aged white men. In Gunn’s collection we have the viewpoints of white middle-class women.
In ‘A Story She Might Tell Herself’ the monk, sleeping in the woods, is a representation of the ‘other’, the other kind of man Helen might have been with, a kind man, not the hard-drinking bully at home, a more perfect man, an ideal. But she is hesitant about entering the woods.
‘Elegy’ is as beautiful as the title might make you hope for. The poignant passage of time making you realise that your life is now. Elisabeth is the kind of female character I always hope to find in a story, and I was deeply interested by her fictional presence.
‘Scenario’ is a curious story in the sense that the actual story is much less interesting than the one left untold, and perhaps that is the point. But as with the other first-person narratives in the collection, like ‘Foxes’ and ‘Dick’, I found Gunn’s use of that point of view less convincing than when she uses third person and goes deeper. Though ‘Dick’ is an unsettling and powerful little story.
‘Glenhead’ reminded me of a Helen Simpson story, but I forget which one, and was largely unremarkable except for the startling moment when the character talks to a house and the house talks back. I wish there had been more moments like that.
The preface to ‘The Highland Stories’ is useful for those not familiar with how short stories work, a primer for those that more often read novels. ‘In ‘The Rock’ a memory becomes a dream and then a nightmare, but the rest of ‘The Highland Stories’ are clumped together to give the impression of depth, and all told felt a fraction slight.
On this evidence, Gunn is not a quotable writer. But that is no bad thing. The sentences work in service of the stories, not themselves, like a guitarist more interested in the song than the solo.
‘The Caravan’ is one of those back to front stories that if you have read the like of before you are already bored by. Beyond the details of the caravan itself this story was too lacking in specifics to retain my interest.
There’s a country versus city theme throughout, which I enjoyed, but ultimately, I remained irritated by the constant references to the telling of the stories. We all know the short story form is a complete artifice, a structure through which to convey a narrative, realistic or otherwise, but that’s what I want in the end, just the story, not comments on its construction.
Infidelities is published by Faber & Faber and is available here.
Kirsty Gunn published her first novel with Faber in 1994 and since then has written five works of fiction and three short story collections. Translated in over twelve territories, and widely anthologised, her books have been broadcast, turned into film and dance theatre, and are the recipient of various prizes and awards, including Scottish Book of the Year 1997. A regular contributor to a range of international newspapers and magazines, she is also Professor of Writing Practice and Study at the University of Dundee, where she established and directs the writing programme. She lives in London and Scotland with her husband and two daughters.
Reviewed by Neil Campbell
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