Kirsty Gunn’s contribution to the Cahier Series is a meditation on the bush of New Zealand and her childhood memories of this dark and mysterious place. The book begins as a memoir with Gunn describing the park in her neighborhood with swings, slides, games and a swimming pool. But lingering at the edges of this childhood playground was the bush, “a dark presence waiting at the end of all the brightness and play.”
Gunn describes and defines the bush in various ways; it looms over the playground, thick and dark, so to children it seems like a scary, unknown place. It never has a specific season but instead parts of it bloom while other parts die all year round. “It was dark and wet-smelling,” she says, “half the things in it were rotting and the other half in bud.” The bush was also a place that the men liked to disappear for several days while hunting and living wildly. When they came back they would smell of wet and earth but feeling relaxed and free. There was an expression that the men used, “Going Bush” which meant that a person would go into this tangled and difficult terrain and allow himself to be changed by the experience. “Only men went in there, into the Tarawheras, or the Ureweras or the Kaimanawa Ranges. They came home, sun-blackened and with beards or stubble on their faces, laughing and smelling of earth and drink and something else—seeds or mould or blood.”
The author herself, as a young girl going through the bewilderment and confusion of puberty, describes the bush as something that provides a solace for her. The writing switches to narrative form that depicts the summer in the author’s adolescence during which she meets her father’s family for a picnic. She has just started menstruating that very day and her mother has made her feel embarrassed about her changing body. Her cousins are cruel to the girl who is already self-conscious of her growing body which she covers up with baggy clothes and sweaters. As the picnic progresses, she can’t take her cousins’ insulting remarks any longer so she slips into the bush. The bush becomes for her a hideaway, a refuge where she can shed her layers of clothing and swim unencumbered in the cool river. Gunn personifies the bush as it calls to the girl and soothes her: “‘Use me,’ the riverbank had told her then. It had said the same again as she had stood there like a mighty tree, dark and silent, while the terrible cousins ran straight on past her—and she had let them go.”
Gunn’s exploration of the bush and it’s various meanings brings this experience of New Zealand alive for us in this cahier; many view this dark, tangled place as inhospitable but its wilderness protects her during a vulnerable moment in her early years. The blending of different genres—memoir, narrative, diary and even poetry— are each a fitting way to present different and multilayered perspectives of the bush.
Kirsty Gunn’s sister, Merran Gunn, has done the mixed media art work to go along with this cahier. I enjoy looking at the images in the cahier series as much as I enjoy the writing. My plan is to read every book in the series. I have started with the latest publications, number 29 and 27 and will work my way up to the earliest cahiers.
About the Author:
Her fiction includes the acclaimed Rain (1994), the story of an adolescent girl and the break-up of her family, for which she won a London Arts Board Literature Award; The Keepsake (1997), the fragmented narrative of a young woman recalling painful memories; and Featherstone (2002), a story concerned with love in all its variety. Her short stories have been included in many anthologies including The Junky’s Christmas and Other Yuletide Stories (1994) and The Faber Book of Contemporary Stories about Childhood (1997).
She is also author of This Place You Return To Is Home (1999), a collection of short stories, and in 2001 she was awarded a Scottish Arts Council Writer’s Bursary. Her latest books are The Boy and the Sea (2006), winner of the 2007 Sundial Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award; and 44 Things (2007), a book of personal reflections over the course of one year.
Kirsty Gunn lives in Edinburgh, Scotland