Could there be a more frivolous title? Emblazoned in pink on the cover, Caroline’s Bikini suggests that what lies within is a high-summer romance, a story whose happy, sexy ending is assured. As with its section headings – Ready, Steady, Go! – it hints that within these pages a reader in search of escape and wish-fulfilment will find all things bright, beautiful and boring.
On two of those counts you would be right. Kirsty Gunn’s playful and whimsical sixth novel is indeed a love story, albeit harking back to the origins of the genre. Following The Big Music, and earlier wors such as Rain, and The Boy and the Sea it takes its cue from the medieval tradition of courtly love, that formal expression of unconsummated and often unrequited adoration which inspired some of the greatest literature ever written, Caroline’s Bikini is a very knowing latter-day version of this evergreen theme. As Gunn writes in the copious pseudo-academic endnotes that append her novel, Courtly Love is ‘the entertainment about and for kings and queens and princesses and is still the basis for much of the literature that we give little girls in particular; at birthdays and Christmases, bound between the hard covers of a book of Fairy Tales and sprinkled liberally with glitter’. Caroline’s Bikini likewise provides glitter in abundance, but it is of the pyrotechnical kind, as Gunn displays virtuosic mastery of the novel form, while making the story sparkle at every turn. It is a dazzling performance.
The title might be marshmallow, but the heartache it describes is anything but sweet. Indeed, this novel is an achingly honest depiction of the suffering of those who dare not declare their passion to the object of their desire but, unless they are to go mad, must find an outlet for their feelings. At its centre are Evan Gordonston, a high-flying banker recently returned to London after many years in America, and Emily Stuart, his best friend from their Twickenham childhood days. Emily, also middle-aged and single, is a freelance writer who occasionally publishes short stories but pays her bills by writing copy for pet food ads. The pair have barely been in touch since the Gordonstons left, but their old bond remains and very soon Evan begins to unburden the torment of his new-found love.
His Beatrice or Laura is Caroline Beresford, she of the bikini which, we learn early on, is to make its appearance late in the novel, at a summer poolside party where the dress code is ‘swimwear’. The promise it holds out is dangled before the reader like a thong from a little finger, but before it fulfils its potentially titillating role much ground must first be covered.
Rejecting the prospect of a luxury flat paid for by his bank, Evan instead becomes a lodger in a large house with a sprawling garden, in Richmond. It is ‘at the end of the District line’, but the friend who suggests he would be happy there mentions the ‘fun scene’ that Caroline presides over, with her three young boys, and her intermittently present husband. A lawyer, Mr Beresford appears to have rejected career and home life for a monkish existence studying the classics while holed up in a rented flat in Bloomsbury.
Evan’s is not a slow-burn passion. From the moment Caroline opens the front door, he is smitten. ‘Hi, I’m Caroline,’ She’d said. And – BANG.’ Gunn’s footnote for BANG, reads: ‘See, if interested and later, the note for ‘Courtly Love’ for further information regarding that BANG, as well as other relevant material, notes on Petrarch and Dante, all of it.’
Such is the coup de foudre he experiences, Evan begs Emily to write an account of what he is going through. He wants her to become, in effect, his amanuensis. At first she is reluctant, never having attempted such a demanding and extended piece of prose. But since it would entail regular meetings, she agrees. What ensues are months of catch-ups in pubs and bars, where Evan apprises her of the latest developments.
At this point, readers should be warned that for the next couple of hundred pages not very much happens. Not, that is, in the traditional sense expected from novels. Often, the only change in gear is finding a new watering hole. At first, they meet in countryish pubs, such as The Cork and Bottle and The Walker’s Friend, where one can ask merely for a G&T, wear a Barbour, and pat labradors under the tables. Over time, they move steadily upmarket to establishments with names such as Ripeness is All, where the spirit comes in thimble-sized glasses, with outlandish tonics, no ice, and swizzle sticks made of rosemary. Hints of plot advancement can also be deduced from Evan’s growing dishevelment, his stained jerseys and ghastly ‘sweatpants’, his gradual loss of weight. Emily too is altering. She has begun turning down paid work in order to focus on Evan’s opus. ‘You have a mortgage to pay,’ one friend warns her, but she is too preoccupied to listen.
Doggedly, but not without flashes of spirit, Emily records what Evan is undergoing, filling in missing details which she must deduce herself, or inserting Evans’s own notes. When he suggests their joint project is perhaps not a report but a novel, she goes along with it, although she regularly chivvies him over the lack of narrative momentum, without which, she says, their readers will lose interest.
In Gunn’s hands, these meetings, and the hesitant love affair around which they revolve, gradually build into a remarkable piece of fiction. Endlessly circling over what has already been told, but always adding a fresh morsel to the mix, Caroline’s Bikini is like Jane Austen’s deceptively narrow territory, what she called her ‘two-inch bit of ivory’. The minuteness of the subject and the intensity of its telling might seem at first disproportionate. By the end, a teeming world, and countless worlds within it, have been revealed and dissected, all in a manner that is not just engrossing, but poignant, witty, and amusing. This, rather than Caroline’s home, is the ‘fun scene’. Only once, when Emily offers a reminder of events so far does the momentum stutter, these passages redundant given the recursive style of the whole. Thereafter, the pace, if that is the correct word, resumes.
The intellectual and literary heft of Caroline’s Bikini places it in the company of fine European modernists, such as the Spanish novelist Javier Marias. In particular it shares some of its technique with his trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, whose almost hypnotic looping stream of consciousness style, in which memory plays as big a part as new events, creates crescendo and tension in a similar way, and in so doing illuminates a far wider stage. In Marias’s case, the picture he draws is sinister. In Gunn’s, it is comic, and warm.
Gunn differs also from Marias in overtly and incessantly commenting upon, illuminating, subverting and, in so doing, honouring the art of writing fiction. ‘The story was proceeding, of that there was no doubt,’ writes Emily. ‘I had the pages to prove it, but I also had to admit that there was a sort of undoing about our activity at the same time; like knitting come undone.’ Far from disguising the method behind the words, Gunn wants readers to see the joins, the screws and nails, the very workings of the book they have in their hands. You might think this would destroy all illusion of fiction, but the reverse is true. Pointing out the artifice makes it, oddly, seem all the more real.
The subtlety and complexity of composition this requires is breathtaking. From a page of seemingly mundane reportage, as Emily drains another gin and listens to Evan’s never-ending ruminations, Gunn evokes not just the relationship between this pair, and the far-away homes and times in which they were raised, but also the society and milieu in which they now move. West London itself breathes upon them, first in the chill and dark of wintertime, where they meet, swaddled in scarves and gloves, then through spring and, eventually, summer in which the poolside party and its skimpy swimwear beckons.
At every turn, Gunn deploys the novelist’s most trusted tools and tricks: seasons are used to embellish emotions, to frame conversations and counterpoint feelings. The constantly changing backdrop of pubs and bars becomes her stage, each adding incidental depth and commentary. Crucial, too, is the dialogue, whether Emily’s cautiously English manner, Evan’s looser, Americanized voice, or the casual ebullience of Caroline: ‘Calling out from the car, through the open window, as she reversed down the drive, “I can’t wait to see you when you get home later! Can you and I have a drink together and one of our special talks?” ’
Also alluded to is the Scottishness that lies beneath the tale. In the endnotes, Gunn writes: ‘Caroline’s Bikini, the work of a Stuart about a Gordonston, arranged by a Gunn…was never to be a prose work belonging to anything other than the Scottish and modernist project, with roots in the early Renaissance tradition of Petrarchan love poetry by way of a long-standing debt to writing by Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf.’
The nods to Mansfield and Woolf are evident. But is it possible to detect a Scottish voice in Emily’s writing, in the sentiments felt and expressed, or the tenor of the whole? It would take a closer reader than this one to discern that. Yet pinpointing the work’s provenance feels unnecessary to its appreciation, except perhaps to the academic sleuth. A Professor of Writing Practice and Study at Dundee University, Gunn appears to enjoy gently ridiculing, but also making good use of, academic conventions. These include letting the reader know that events have taken place, off-the-page, that Emily has not revealed. For all her seeming diligence, she is an unreliable narrator.
What purpose does the self-aware, self-referencing, ‘metatextual’ novel serve, when it refuses to let readers slump into a state of unthinking escapism? In the case of Caroline’s Bikini, you could say that it is to try to capture, through the palpably imaginary, the physical sense of the real; to evoke the texture, the taste, the humdrum chaos of being alive. Gunn’s notes under ‘Literary Background and Context’ sum up her ambition better than any review could hope to: ‘ “Make it new,” said the modernist poet Ezra Pound in his outline of the poetic project; well, then so might Caroline’s Bikini be, to paraphrase another poet, Wallace Stevens, no representation of an event, but the event itself, as Stevens put it: “The cry of its own creation.” ’
Gunn’s creation is entertainment of a high order. It is also a brilliant exercise in, and commentary upon, the imagination. From trying to understand the behaviour of people we are close to let alone those we have never met, it shows the huge part it plays in everybody’s life. Almost every hour of the day we are faced with facts and news that require an imaginative response. The extent to which we meet that demand influences the way we think and act. In this respect, readers of novels should be better equipped. They have long known that what they find in fiction feels more convincing, more tangible and more intensely felt, than the stuff that actually happens.