Rain by Kirsty Gunn

She was beautiful, that was all … Scared at how life turns out and with nothing left to do about it. The future wasted and only the past now, rolling up from behind.

I bought this book a few weeks ago thinking it was a young adult novel (someone must have slipped it onto the wrong shelf), but quickly discovered it to be a much more adult novella. Rain is told from the perspective of a woman remembering her girlhood. As a result the voice is both young and old; the reader is presented with youthful experience filtered by self-conscious adult reflection. Rain is a nostalgic book – reading it is like looking through an album of black and white photographs. But the feeling of nostalgia comes not only from the adult looking back. The twelve-year-old is also very aware of the passage of time, and laments (even as she is in the midst of it) the waning of her childhood.

Witten by New Zealand-born author Kirsty Gunn, Rain is a 95 page novella first published in 1994. The protagonist is Janey, a girl on the cusp of being a teenager. While at her family’s holiday house at the edge of a lake Janey is tasked with looking after her five-year-old brother, Jim. Janey’s parents are preoccupied with parties and alcohol, and their slowly dying marriage.

The first thing that struck me about this novella was the beauty of its language and its wonderful sense of place. Unsurprisingly, Gunn lists Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield as two of her influences. In this interview with The Scotsman, Gunn discusses her preference for sentence over plot, and the need for flexibility: “The idea that you break free of the tyranny of narrative to let a story emerge.” One criticism of Rain is that it is overwrought; that there is too much description and pondering, and not enough simplicity. I have to admit that on the first read I found myself getting a little bored with the numerous sketches of the lake, and wanted to skip over the bulkier descriptive paragraphs. However, this is how I once felt upon reading Woolf. Then I stopped looking for a plot and instead gave myself up to the beauty of the words themselves.

Rain’s overarching theme seems to be the inescapability of time. Almost all of the characters are trapped by their fear of “the future wasted and only the past now.” For everyone (except, perhaps, Little Jim) the present is lost in the past. Janey’s mother lives only for the evening parties, where she is at her most beautiful, her most youthful, and where seems to float some vain hope that life will suddenly become wonderful:

Night after night, the same people mesh and join in the wash; this is their version of time. They talk and dance, move in and out amongst each other, believing, with every fresh move, that there’s something in the evening that will change them.

And as Janey’s mother watches her daughter grows she sees the fading of herself:

Sitting at her dressing-table that night, somewhere under her smooth expression she knew it. That I would take her limbs, her hair. That some day I would become her…

Janey’s father, too, seems frozen in time, refusing to confront the reality of his wife’s alcoholism and his failing marriage, spending his afternoons drinking whiskey sours with his chair turned away from the view. And even Janey misses her childhood before it’s gone:

I’d love to have my body back … to feel it in the air a ribbon. But I’m nearly teenaged now and I must wear jeans.

I didn’t realise what a colourless novella Rain is (and I don’t mean this as a criticism – quite the opposite) until I read this sentence on page 30:

Beside him, where he sat in the half-broken wicker chair, was a big red plastic bowl full of lemons and a knife.

The red bowl and the yellow lemons are so vivid in contrast to the dreary, watery atmosphere of the rest of the novella (like the little girl in the red dress in Schindler’s List). This brief, bright image serves to enhance the faded feeling of the story as a whole.

In 2001 a film adaptation of Rain was released, directed by Christine Jeffs, with wonderful music composed by Neil Finn. The film is noticeably more colourful than the book, but retains the focus on landscape and details. Particularly memorable are shots of grass chopping through the mower, cracking eggs, and the yellow lemons. The film also does a wonderful job of presenting the weight of time. There is an especially eerie slow-motion sequence of Jim running on the beach in a batman costume, his black cape flailing out behind him, the music slow and jarringly sinister. A number of clips from the film can be seen here.

Overall, Rain is at once lovely and sad. A reminder of the dangers of becoming bogged down in the past, and of the futility of fighting change. Time, Janey realises, is like water:

Of course our mark upon it, our frail kicking … Of course it could have been no more than leaves scattered across the surface.

Kirsty Gunn’s other novels include The Boy and the Sea (winner of the 2007 Sundial Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award), The Keepsake, and Big Music (Book of the Year at the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Awards). Rain was awarded the London Arts Board Literature Award. Read more about Kirsty Gunn and her work at her website.

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