Writing a book review about a novel that is about a book reviewer writing a novel, and that references the act of novel writing, often in footnotes, is the self-reflexive task of appraising Kirsty Gunn’s latest offering. A modern-day mash-up of Milton, metafiction and Dante, and of Renaissance swooning in Richmond, Caroline’s Bikini questions myth and reality through an exploration of the nature of fiction and the projection of love.
Courtly love is the fabric on which this modern story is sewn. The book includes sections of Il Canzoniere, a sonnet sequence written by Petrarch after having fallen in love with a 14-year-old girl exiting a church. The 14th-century poet wrote yearningly about her for a period of 40 years without ever meeting her.
In the 21st century of Gunn’s novel, financier Evan Gordonston, “outgoing but in a retiring kind of way”, returns from the US after 30 years. Evan and the book reviewer, Emily Stuart, once childhood neighbours and best friends, haven’t seen each other their entire adult life. Arriving in London, Evan contacts “Nin” (as he calls her) and takes lodgings, on her suggestion, with a woman in Richmond with whom he promptly falls in love. Enlisting Emily’s help to record the experience, which he initially considers fictionalising, he exuberantly declaims: “I want to be in, Nin – the entire story, with my full name and all my feelings on show.”
So begin multiple meetings in gin bars in west London, with Evan handing Emily portions of disconnected writings detailing his love for his landlady, Caroline Beresford. Emily, in her role as amanuensis, is encouraged to use these notes as she sees fit. Her reason for agreeing to this role is Milton. Once an ardent English student, she loves the “image of Milton with his daughters; the scene by the bed: the poet and those steady scribes of his, waiting for them to come in after a night of composition with his chunks of iambic pentameter at the ready and them being there to write it all down”. A section entitled “Some Further Reading Material” informs us of the “coincidence” of Emily’s surname: Milton lived in the era of the Stuarts, and also in Hammersmith, and Emily lives in “an area on the borders of Hammersmith”.
In the main “novel” (Emily herself places it in quote marks, uncertain how exactly to term this narrative of experience) academic footnotes share space with Emily’s first-person colloquial voice; she frets whether what she is doing is “real writing”, whether it is “interesting” or “going” anywhere, nudging us to question the nature of fiction.
An array of references, among them Bob Dylan, Dante, Neil Diamond, Margaret Meade, Virginia Woolf and John Cheever, include a nod to Gunn’s award-winning book The Big Music – a novel also with footnotes – through the mention of piobaireachd (bagpipe music) in a pub. And alternative narratives abound (Evan suggests to Emily the possibility of “another book” running as a counter-point to this one).
What remains clear is Gunn’s cleverness. She is a writer who flicks language about, this way and that, inspecting its underbelly. Yet writing is more than the calibre of its conceit. If one is judging Caroline’s Bikini, a metafictional homage to Renaissance love, as an erudite work that erudite readers will “get”, it is seductively successful; if one is searching for something that, as the narrator puts it, “the reader might engage with, feel emotionally attached to, might care about, even…”, it cools on the page.
While self-reflexivity isn’t new in literature (Cervantes employed it more than 400 years ago in Don Quixote), it has never been more relevant; in the era of fake news, belief is no longer suspended. Perhaps, then, the issue in Caroline’s Bikini is one of length. Recent, slimmer novels (Cynan Jones’s The Dig, Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, David Vann’s novellas) compress their complexity, allowing readers a pleasing turbulence over a short distance. Had Caroline’s Bikini been published solely as its back section – with its “Use of Flora and Fauna” or “Further Definitions of ‘Alternative Narrative’”, or its humorous forays into pubs visited, lists of gin consumed and references to Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio – it may have been equally as compelling.
For many readers, Caroline’s Bikini will resemble the process of discovering multiple rooms and delighting in how they are intricately linked. However, meta isn’t always better. Simple can be, and is, just as sweet.
Rebecca Swirsky’s fiction was included in “Best British Short Stories 2015”
Faber & Faber, 352pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 27 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Germany, alone