What We're Reading: Caroline's Bikini by Kirsty Gunn

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“Alright' I said, 'I’ll try...' This is how Emily Stuart opens her intricate tale of a classic love affair that becomes Caroline’s Bikini: a swirling cocktail of infatuation, obsession, and imagination.

The moment that Emily’s friend Evan Gordonstone - a successful middle-aged financier - meets Caroline Beresford – a glamorous former horsewoman, and now housewife, hostess, and landlady - there is a 'PING!' At least, that's how Evan describes it to Emily when he persuades her to record his story: the story of falling into unrequited love, which is as old as Western literature itself. Thus begins a hypnotic series of conversations set against the beguiling backdrop of West London’s bars, fuelled in intensity by endless G&Ts and Q&As. From the depths of mid-winter to July’s hot swelter, Emily's narration of Evan’s passion for Caroline will take him to the brink of his own destruction.

Written in a voice so playful, so charismatic, and so thoughtfully aware of the responsibilities of fiction it can only be by Kirsty Gunn, Caroline’s Bikini is a swooning portrait of courtly love - in a modern world not celebrated for its restraint and abstraction. Ready. Steady. Go!”

Caroline’s Bikini is a love story about love stories, a novel about writing novels. Emily Stuart has been asked by her lifelong friend Evan Gordonstone to record his love-at-first-sight romance with Caroline Beresford, a project which they undertake together in a series of West London bars. The story unfolds over intense conversations; Evan’s obsession with Caroline and their project leads him to put pen to incredibly fancy Fortnum & Mason notepaper to scribble down every minute detail of his life as a lodger is Beresford’s suburban Richmond house, which Emily must decode as they meet for their almost daily G&T / Q&A sessions.

Evan’s intense and obsessive, yet unrequited love, is one which Emily isn’t sure will make the best subject for the novel which she is writing in amanuensis for Evan, yet for some reason she lets him continue to live out his somewhat unrealistic fantasy. Being a love story which could not seem more modern day; a businessman just returned from America, selling some fancy financial product which no one really understands, falling in love with the landlady with whom he lodges, it may seem surprising that parallels are continually drawn to the traditions of courtly love in early literature. Unrequited love appears so regularly in the literary tradition, and Evan’s story is truly no different to Dante and Beatrice, or Petrarch and Laura, and Emily becomes aware of this in the project she is undertaking. Reference is made often to the similarities in the literary traditions, Emily feels she is somewhat like Milton’s daughters, recording Evan’s story the way they recorded Paradise Lost in amanuensis as he dictated to them from his sickbed. In fact, one thing I enjoyed about this book is the fact that references are footnoted and everything is explained in such depth in an appendix at the end with suggested further reading to allow the reader to gain a full understanding of authors who inspired not just Caroline’s Bikini, but the tradition of love stories as a whole. The appendices feature a small self analysis of the book: of manners of speech and idioms, interactions and relationships betweens family and characters, a small selection of sonnets relevant to the story, information on narrative and linguistic construction - anyone interested not just in reading, but in literature and writing also will thoroughly enjoy the care taken with the construction of this book.

Whilst as Evan himself regularly states, it is a love story in which not a lot actually happens, the story itself is not what we actually gain from the book. The incidents of metatextuality in Caroline’s Bikini and the self-awareness of the text when trying to create a successful narrative within itself from Evan’s story through the project they write together, give interesting levels of depth, and for me this reflexivity is one of the things which I found unique about this book. Often novels have a self awareness; a fourth wall being broken through a character speaking to the reader, but I enjoyed the subtlety and difference of Gunn’s method of writing here.

Caroline’s Bikini is available now in Hardback from Faber & Faber, for £14.99.

Anna WardComment