My first review of the New Year is the NZ Post Book Award winner of 2013, Kirsty Gunn’s The Big Music. While I may appear tardy in not reading it until now, I’ll admit that it has been sitting on my bedsit table for a while because I wanted to save it, to savour it, and also because I knew it was going to take all of my concentration, and a great deal of my time to read. I’ve always enjoyed Gunn’s writing – the sparse language that evokes a mood, an emotional landscape that pulls me in – and The Big Music, which collates and retells the history of the Sutherland family, their house and pipe music, is no exception.
As a child I was scared of bagpipe music. There was always a pipe band in the Christmas parade in Timaru, and when it marched by I would hide behind my mother’s skirt. It was just too loud, too bovine like, and too close for my childish sensibilities. As I have gotten older my appreciation has shifted, a little. At Grandma’s funeral a piper played, so now hearing the pipes reminds me of her. The year after my Grandmother died, my eldest sister walked home crying from the Christmas parade because the sound bought back her grief at losing Grandma. That is the pipes’ power, to evoke emotion.
Gunn’s novel follows the structure of a piobaireachd, the ‘big music’ of the classical composition of the Highland bagpipe. One of the features of a piobaireachd is layering, so in parts of the novel words and phrases are repeated, and events are told from different perspectives, and a generation reflects on the previous one, and the one before that. Names echo like notes throughout the novel. Characters become well known and at the same time they become increasingly slippery as the reader tries to recall who is who, and then is told again, and again. The structure is integral to the novel because a piobaireachd blends together words and music; while the chapter and section titles reflect the different movements of the music, Gunn’s words blend with those movements.
The other interesting structural arrangement in the novel is the use of appendices. There are footnotes throughout the book that refer to the appendices for those who want further information. So, in some ways, the novel reads like non-fiction, or perhaps creative non-fiction. I didn’t read all of the appendices, sometimes I found the intrusion a little annoying – I wanted to be lost in my fictional bubble without the reminder of the research behind the story - but at the same time I was amazed at the inclusion of the appendices, how it pushes at the boundary between fact and fiction, and how it challenges the way a family history is presented in fiction.
The story itself starts with John Sutherland, an elderly composer of pipe music, who has taken a baby into the Highlands in order to sit down with the child and compose a tune, but he has taken the child without the mother’s permission which understandably upsets the household. While John walks across the highlands his story and that of his household starts. There were several times when I was just awestruck by Gunn’s turn of phrase, and her emotional rendering of her characters. What I particularly liked was the depiction of the female characters; their strength, practicality, capacity for love and ability to just ‘get on’. It was those moments which kept me going; the novel is a demanding read. Despite the repetition sometimes I wondered where the story was going, and as much as I knew the characters, I didn’t really. These elements, I guess, reflect the modernist position of the work which is trying to reflect more accurately what is going on in characters’ heads rather than trying to tidy everything up into a coherent structure that makes sense of everything as the realism of the Victorian and Edwardian eras tended to. The text is fragmented too, as dictated by the musical movements but also by the memory and remembering of the characters.
My appreciation of the pipes has increased. Perhaps the problem all those years ago at the Christmas parade was that the Edwardian buildings of Stafford Street were crowded too close to the music, when the music needed space to echo and repeat, and not to walk in such an orderly fashion from one end of the street to the other.