Home and away

The Leper's Companion

Julia Blackburn <em>Jonathan Cape, 216pp, £14.99</em>

This Place You Re

Do things have to happen in fiction? Certainly some kinds of fiction depend on incident. Think of travelogues such as Robinson Crusoe, or personal histories like Great Expectations, where characters develop by manoeuvring through a thicket of action. In other kinds of fiction, incident is less important. Virginia Woolf, for instance, subordinates external events, focusing instead on the internal movement of minds.

At first glance, new books by Julia Blackburn and Kirsty Gunn slip into the Woolfian model, light on dialogue and fat with introspection. In Gunn's story "Everyone is Sleeping" a woman contemplates her deceased parents' house. "The garden where her mother used to walk . . . the rooms where her father kept his books . . . It's only images of her life that inhabit this place now, the perfect painted memories of things she had seen." In The Leper's Companion another woman recovers from madness after she has a vision of angels forming "a ring of protection around her. They encapsulated her in a world of her own where she was no longer burdened by sadness." In Gunn's fiction damaged characters summon up memories and imaginary worlds as a means by which to cope with loss and painful experience.

The unnamed protagonist of Blackburn's novel has been devastated by the loss of a loved one. Her response is to "bang the door shut on this present time" by staying in some "distant country". In retreat, she stumbles on a village where, as it happens, the year is 1410. Invisible to everyone except a leper but able to inhabit people's minds, the woman immerses herself in village life. She feels especially close to Sally, a fisherman's daughter whose husband drowned, and to the well-travelled leper. When the leper, Sally, a priest and a shoemaker's wife decide to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the woman accompanies them.

The Leper's Companion ambitiously aims to invoke an entire medieval world, at times sharply described but on the whole too often vaguely sketched and inhabited by shadowy archetypes identified only by profession (priest, leper, shoemaker). And characters' thoughts tend towards the comically anachronistic - the priest, for instance, who wonders if he "decided to join the priesthood because it enabled him to listen to the confession of sins he would not know how to commit", sounds like a candidate for group therapy. The significance these characters hold for the bereaved woman also remains disappointingly unclear.

If Blackburn's protagonist finds a kind of relief in her imaginary journeys, Gunn's are less fortunate. Her stories are studies in emotional extremism. A son is maddened to violence by his father; a teenager becomes estranged from her friends as she mourns her dead mother; a distraught woman takes her daughters away from her husband and returns to the town where she grew up. The waitress in "Visitor", who wears expensive underwear and sleeps with her customers, begins to question her way of life when she visits the dying aunt who raised her to be a "special kept and secret girl". Between raping girls and skinning animals, the son in "The Meatyard" recalls with sadness his mother's "cool cheek as she leaned over and kissed him goodnight". These people long for an idyllic past, when parents were alive, children were innocent, and a place called home actually existed.

Gunn's prose is bullet-hard and vivid - offal "bought cheap at the butcher's" gleams on a plate; "white crescents in pools of pale gravy, soft pink for lips and tongues". The stench of dead animals permeates "The Meatyard" - "In the heat of the car, coming off the red-painted sides of the car, off the road, the air was the smell of blood, and the money."

Her best stories are snapshots of intense mental activity. In "Visitor" and "The Meatyard" the sense of desperation is palpable and frightening. But the overall effect is less powerful. Like snapshots, these stories are static. Unnamed and unsituated characters are frozen in time and space, their minds and bodies pointlessly oscillating between home and away, past and present. They can't move ahead because they can't imagine another way to live. The enraged son goes back to his father's meatyard. The unhappy wife returns to her claustrophobic childhood village. Each story reads like a repeat of the last one. You read on and on, waiting for something to happen.