Rain by Kirsty Gunn review

Hi everyone! My review today is Rain, the debut novel by Kirsty Gunn. Jane Phelon reflects back to the summer of 1972, when her family made the annual trip to their holiday home by the lake. Jane and her little brother James, affectionately nicknamed Jim Little, explore the lake and surrounding countryside. They are gone for long periods of time, as their parents host nightly parties and are often too hungover during the day to spend a lot of time with the kids. And on this particular year tragedy strikes.

It is an incredibly hard book to describe, mainly because there is no plot. You can easily guess the conclusion from the opening paragraph, and Gunn makes various allusions to it throughout the narrative. The novel seems less about what happened and more how did it happen, and what impact that had on Jane. However I’m not sure if it fully succeeded in this.

The relationship dynamics between the family members were really well done. Gunn effectively puts up a barrier between the children and their parents, using distancing language to highlight the disparity amongst them. The mother’s emphasis on makeup and fancy clothing hints at the facade they put on when with others. I also enjoyed the sibling relationship. Gunn really captured Jane’s mentality as both an older sister who has to take care of her brother but is also a child herself – she is only 12 and Jim is 5. You pity her as she has to act as a de facto mother.

However none of the characters felt particularly well-developed. None seemed to have an arc in the story and there didn’t appear to be any depth. Perhaps because it is being told through one perspective that I felt this way, but I came away from the novel indifferent to the characters. Also the plot takes a really dark turn near the end, but we never know how that affects Jane either at the time or in her future. It just happens. That moment seemed more of a shock tactic than an integral part of the story. It was completely unnecessary and left a bad taste afterwards.

Gunn’s writing is very beautiful and poetic, some of her descriptions are so vivid it is easy to picture yourself by this lakeside. However, I did have a couple of minor issues with this as well. Some moments were very lyrical while others were quite stale. Gunn used some tired similes and metaphors in her writing, one eerily similar to another I had read years ago at school. It was frustrating as Gunn clearly showed she was capable of stunning prose elsewhere. The descriptions were occasionally overwritten. She would linger on a scene longer than necessary, and I felt frustrated that we were not progressing with the story.

While there were good elements in Rain, I don’t know if the novel worked as a whole. It was hard to care about the characters, and I found one plot twist to be in poor taste. Gunn can certainly write, though I did feel like it was a mixed bag in terms of imagery. Gunn has had high praise for her later novels so if you are interested in giving her a try, I would maybe start with them and give Rain a miss.

Rain is published by Faber & Faber and more information can be found here.

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