Tag Archives: New Zealand

Review: Going Bush by Kirsty Gunn

My Review:
going-bushKirsty 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:
kirsty-gunnKirsty Gunn was born in 1960 in New Zealand and educated at Queen Margaret College and Victoria University, Wellington, and at Oxford, where she completed an M.Phil. After moving to London she worked as a freelance journalist.

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

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Review: The Settling Earth by Rebecca Burns

I received an advanced review copy of this collection of short stories from the author.

My Review:
The Settling EarthAll of the characters in these short stories are connected by their sense of alienation and misery while living an emigrant’s life in the hot, dusty colony of New Zealand in the 19th century.  The book begins with Sarah, whose parents have given her away to an older man named William Sanderson who drags her off to live on his isolated farm in New Zealand.  Sarah is lonely, homesick and stuck in an unhappy marriage.  She seems to be wandering around her home in a daze, either not fully aware of her surrounding or in denial of her situation.

William himself is also the focus of one of the stories in the book and he doesn’t seem to want to live in New Zealand any more than his wife does.  In order to relieve his stress and find an outlet for his frustrations, he likes to visit a brothel in Christchurch.  William is also a bigot and has a severe dislike for the Maori natives.

Several characters from the brothel also have their own stories.  The owner of the brothel, having left England and started her business, tries to look after her “girls” as best she can.  But, despite the fact that precautions are taken,  several of them still manage to get pregnant.  The women in the brothel are just as sad as Sarah and trapped in a lonely and demeaning life.

The saddest, and most heart-rending story in the collection, is that of Mrs. Gray who takes in the babies of unwed mothers.  These fallen women and their children are judged harshly and shunned by the colony.  It is ironic that many of these women have come to the colony for a fresh start but the colony also rejects them because of their perceived sins.  Mrs. Gray believes that she is helping these women and her babies, but the help that she is giving these women is not what they are expecting.

THE SETTLING EARTH is a well-written group of stories, full of downcast and moving characters.  My only complaint about the book, if indeed it can be called a “complaint,” is that just when I became fully invested in a character the story would end. This collection could easily have been made into one, continuous, thought-provoking book;   I would love to see what a talented author like Rebecca Burns could do with a full-length novel.

About The Author:

Rebecca Burns is an award-winning writer of short stories, over thirty of which have been published online or in print. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011, winner of the Fowey Festival of Words and Music Short Story Competition in 2013 (and runner-up in 2014), and has been profiled as part of the University of Leicester’s “Grassroutes Project”—a project that showcases the 50 best transcultural writers in the county. In November 2014 she won the Black Pear Press short story competition with her story, “Seaglass”. Her piece is the title story in the Black Pear Press anthology, “Seaglass and Other Stories” – available from December 2014 at http://blackpear.net/2014/12/28/wonde…

Rebecca’s debut collection of short stories, “Catching the Barramundi”, was published by Odyssey Books in November 2012 and is available to order from Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Catching-Barram…. In March 2013 it was longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Award.

The Settling Earth is Rebecca’s second collection of short stories.

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Filed under Historical Fiction, Short Stories