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Kirsty Gunn: The Big Music

There have been plenty of novels that have a musical structure as part of their structure. They range from Finnegan’s Wake to Cloud Atlas, from A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time; Remembrance of Things Past) to A Clockwork Orange. There are many more. Kirsty Gunn, however, has decided to take a decided post-modern approach to this way of writing a novel. She writes the novel as though she has been handed a bundle of documents relating to a family very active in piobaireachd (often written and usually pronounced pibroch, though Gunn uses the traditional form throughout the book), the classical form of Scottish bagpipes music. (If you want to listen to some, then Ross Anderson’s page can help.) She, as an editor, was first bemused by the bundle of documents but, by arranging and rearranging them, she found both a story and, more importantly (for her), the structure of a traditional piobaireachd. She gives a long and detailed explanation but, to put it precisely, there is a story of a family, written as though it were a piobaireachd. The piobaireachd, like classical western music has an accepted structure. Indeed, the structure is similar though by no means identical to traditional western classical music. It is divided, as is the story, into four parts, starting with an opening theme, called Urlar (means ground) with subsequent movements (my word, not hers) building on this theme and ending in the conclusion, the Crunluath a mach (means the crown that shows itself). Gunn gives a very detailed explanation of this structure. The text of the novel is not just a straightforward recounting of the story of the family but is fragmented (as were the documents she said she was given), jumping around both chronologically and in terms of which character gets the focus. It is full of footnotes, commenting on both the piobaireachd and its structure and how it relates to the story as well as on other aspects of the story (such as the local geography and the architecture of the house). There are also numerous appendices explaining all these issues.

But, behind all this, there is the story of the Sutherland family, a family with a long tradition of involvement in piobaireachd. The story is mainly concerned with the generations who were born in the twentieth century. It is not helped by the fact that all the men seem to, more or less, have the same name, John Callum MacKay Sutherland. Things are somewhat simplified as the older Sutherland (older in the sense that he is the oldest that plays any role in his book) was actually called Roderick but when his older brother died, he took the name John, as the oldest male in his family always had to be called John. I shall call him Roderick as Gunn generally does. His (only) son is known as John. John’s (only) son is called Callum. Callum has two young children whose names we do not know and who play no role in this book. Much of the book is concerned with events towards the end of John’s life. We know he is going to die as Gunn tells us so when introducing the characters (d. within these pages is how she puts it). John is married to Sarah (Callum’s mother) but they live apart, he up in Scotland, she in London. Callum is married to Anna. They and their children live in London. John is looked after by his estate manager, Iain Cowie, and his wife, Margaret, the housekeeper. Margaret had come to work for Roderick and his wife, Elizabeth. She had met John on one of his visits to Scotland. They had had a brief fling which resulted in a child, Helen. John had not acknowledged Helen and Margaret, rejected by her mother, stays with Roderick and Elizabeth (and, later, John) and brings up Helen. When Iain was appointed estate manager, he married Margaret and has been a good stepfather to Helen. At the beginning of the novel we learn that Helen has an illegitimate child, Katherine Anna. She had had an affair with Callum when he was seventeen but, as, as far as we know, they have not met for many years, so it does not appear that he is the father.

While the novel is mainly about events at the end of John’s life, we also get the previous history (in fragments) as well as the stories of the other protagonists. There are strong father-son issues. John does not get on with Roderick and is afraid of him. He leaves the family home as soon as he can and makes his money in investment banking. Callum, likewise, has issues with John and has not seen him for ten years at the beginning of the novel. But there is also the issue of the piobaireachd. Roderick had been very enthusiastic and had been very much involved as a teacher, organiser, performer and composer. John, because of his hatred of his father, had abandoned piobaireachd (he has been taught as a child) but when his father dies and he comes up to Scotland more often, finally retiring there, he resumes his interest and he, too, starts composing. He has a little hut way up in the hills where he writes and plays. Callum seems to have no interest in it.

So does the whole thing work? It is a reasonably conventional story of a reasonably dysfunctional family with a particular love, in this case for piobaireachd, but told in a very post-modern way. To be quite honest, it really needs a knowledge of musical theory and structure and, in particular, of piobaireachd, to fully appreciate what is going on. However, even if you don’t and you are not averse to a certain amount of post-modernism, there is certainly an interesting novel in there. You, the reader, will have to decide whether it is worth the effort to get at it and whether Gunn’s approach works. My view is that it is an interesting attempt to take a different approach but one that is going to put a lot of readers off but I am sure that she was well aware of that when she set out to write it this way.

Publishing history

First published 2012 by Faber and Faber