Review of ‘The Big Music’ by Kirsty Gunn
Published by Faber & Faber, 2012, RRP $39.99
Reviewed by C P Howe
Read a profile of Kirsty Gunn here.
The Big Music: selected papers is UK-based New Zealander Kirsty Gunn’s latest novel. In her introduction she tells us that the book is a selection from some ‘papers that were presented to me,’ and that she has ‘arranged’ them. The papers as they appear in the novel are written as a third person narrative. So they must have been written by someone trying to tell a story. But who?
There are also copious footnotes and we are, it appears, supposed to believe that it is Gunn who has written them, as well as compiling the 100 pages of appendices. But, like Ian McEwan’s early inclusion of exclamation marks to signal that the narrative in Atonement was not his, but his fictional author Briony’s, the footnotes in The Big Music include many uses of ‘etc.’ – surely something Gunn would not do in her own writing – and it is soon very clear that what we have in front of us is an elaborate fictional construction.
It takes great courage and confidence to attempt such an approach, and create not one but two fictional writers – one who has written the ‘papers,’ and a fictional Gunn who has arranged them, written the footnotes and compiled the appendices – with such a consistent and convincing representation of their respective flaws. Kirsty Gunn clearly has both in spades.
But that’s not all. The ordering of the ‘papers’ follows the structure of piobaireachd (pronouned pee-broh, a specialised form of bagpipe music in four movements, akin to a symphony) because that’s what Gunn – the fictional Gunn – believes the author of the ‘papers’ was aiming for. And throughout, the footnotes tell you exactly what is going on. At times during my reading of the book I thought this was overdone, but I should have trusted her; it is one of the many layers that emerge and is, like everything in fiction, there for a good reason.
Convincing detail – particularity, as Damien Wilkins calls it – is a critical factor in good fiction. Present fiction as fact, with the kind of realistic detail that Gunn includes in The Big Music, or Bruce Chatwin described in Songlines, and people will believe you’re telling the truth. That’s why Songlines can still be found in travel sections of bookshops, and why readers will soon start searching Google Earth for The Grey House featured in The Big Music. Throughout the book, Gunn layers detail upon detail – including family trees, radio interviews and the history of a piping school – so effectively that I had to keep reminding myself that it was fiction.
This may all sound daunting and, to start with, it was. Footnotes and appendices? In a novel? Is it possible to make up so much detail about people and places? Sometimes though, as a reader, you just have to go with it and trust the author. Don’t be tempted to go to Google or Wikipedia. It doesn’t matter if its true or not. In this case, the sheer beauty of the writing makes such a leap of faith very easy. Set in the far north of Scotland, the people, the life and the landscapes jump off the page and surround you. Couple this with a multi-generational sweep across a family history, a deep understanding of what music is, really, and bagpipe music especially – so much more than the notes themselves – and the social, cultural and political context of the Scottish highlands, and you have a true masterpiece.
And yet, even then, there’s more to it. Deep within the narrative there are rewards of a different kind; visceral, heart-wrenching moments of emotion. On at least one occasion I simply had to stop reading and put the book aside. The pattern of the narrative contributes to this. What starts, in each ‘paper,’ as straightforward – but still beautiful – prose evolves in carefully chosen places into something much more. It is here that Gunn’s true commitment to consistently representing the way her imagined writer struggles to get the story down on paper comes through most strongly.
Kirsty Gunn makes all of this – the layering, the structure, the emotion – seem completely effortless, which is the mark of a great writer. She has the most outstanding technical mastery of her craft, together with the skills of a poet for rhythm and cadence and language. More than anything, though, I cared deeply for the characters she’s created and that, surely, is the ultimate test for a novel.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough and, finally, while I’ve nothing against e-books, the physical beauty of the hardback version of The Big Music – with its maps and floor plans, musical manuscripts and handwritten notes – is completely in keeping with the prose that Kirsty Gunn has put on its pages. Buy your copy now; you won’t regret it.