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Kirsty Gunn’s newest short story collection begins dangerously. It opens with a woman—an author writing a short story collection called Infidelities—meeting an old friend (and former lover) for a drink. In just a few pages, Gunn sketches out the contours of their long, complicated history, then leaves us suddenly teetering on the edge of a precipice. Will the author—possibly, the author?—allow herself to be tempted into rekindling an old flame, despite her husband and children waiting for her at home?
In those few introductory pages, Kirsty Gunn also gestures at all the themes that weave through and bind together the interconnected and perfectly formed stories of Infidelities. Secrets, absence, the wilderness, nature, and storytelling all recur throughout the collection. It’s worth noting that, although the collection is called Infidelities, most of the stories don’t involve a traditional affair or an instance of cheating. More often than not Gunn’s stories are about being tempted, and breaking away from the prescribed course of action, as well as rupturing a bond and the trust that bond might imply. Gunn’s short story “Dick” dramatizes this rupture perfectly—the utter betrayal of the trust the daughter character has in her father is horrible and tragic. Less viscerally repulsive but just as powerful is the decision of the main character in “Elegy” not to allow her husband to stand by her side through the last stages of her terminal illness. “In sickness and in health” clearly doesn’t apply here. These kinds of infidelities—evasions or attempts to escape the limits of a relationship—all lead to secrets, of either relatively benign or malignant nature, but all still with some edge of danger.
Gunn is also clearly interested in meta-narrative—the author pulling the curtain back, Wizard-of-Oz style, to reveal and play with the inner workings of the story. The most stunning example of this is the final story, ‘Infidelity’, about a writer trying to craft a story about an overwhelming, world-destabilising moment of temptation in her past. The writer doubles back, doubts what she has previously written, remembers what her creative writing teacher has told her, and feels the truth of that moment stubbornly resisting her attempts to fictionalise and dramatise it. On the one hand, it’s a fascinating look at how a writer tries to write something. On the other hand, it voices questions that echo throughout the entire short story collection. To what extent are we constructing the story of our lives? And what are we meant to do when reality suddenly thrusts upon us a chance to rewrite our story? Do we go with the flow—or break free?
Infidelities is a thought-provoking and deep collection of exquisitely sculpted stories. Like an iceberg, much more lies beneath its surface than one might expect at first glance, and the layers of meaning in each story is brought out in highly individual, engaging prose. Very much recommended.
Reviewed by Feby Idrus
by Kirsty Gunn
Published by Faber and Faber