In her latest novel, Kirsty Gunn takes a brave and original approach. Conscious of the language she uses, capable of creating memorable metaphors and telling parts of the story through characters’ distinctive dialogues, the author makes a bet. She believes that she can almost entirely remove plot from the book and make it worthwhile for the reader to go through over 250 pages (plus another 70 pages of additional notes explaining the background) just on the basis of believable characters and evocative descriptions. Gunn’s risk pays off – Caroline’s Bikini, a novel about writing a novel, is an engaging, humorous and surprising read, original enough to hold the reader’s attention right to the very end.
Since she debuted in 1994 with Rain, a coming-of-age story of an adolescent girl in the middle of her family falling apart, Gunn has had a rich and diverse career, publishing nine books, including novels, short stories and essays. In all of her writing, one feature that stands out is the way she eases her reader into the world she creates – making it effortless to instantly imagine the vivid places, characters and events she describes.
Caroline’s Bikini tells the story of Evan, an international banker who returns from the US to London that where grew up and where he now falls in love with his landlady, Caroline. He asks his life-long friend, Emily, to write down the story of this unrequited love, a theme that, as Gunn constantly reminds the reader, has its roots in Petrarch’s and Dante’s 14th century works. Even though Evan supplies Emily with countless pages of information, not much of it is substantial. His relationship with Caroline is oddly uneventful, the main plot twist being one visit to his room, when after drinking alcohol and taking anti-depression pills, Caroline complains about life and marriage.
Despite its title and apparent story being built around Evan and Caroline, the novel is more about the relationship of Evan and the narrator, Emily. They meet very often, to the extent that writing down Evan’s story overshadows Emily’s work commitments. The emotional tension between the two is never addressed. Instead, throughout the whole book they cruise through countless pubs of West London, sipping gin and tonic and drowning in notes about Caroline. Gunn lets their impatience, frustration, but also excitement show. The two behave like children again, not worried about responsibilities, fully occupied and focused on this one thing that brings them enjoyment.
Despite all the interpersonal narratives this story offers, it is also a story about remembering childhood. Emily and Evan grew up together and when they reconnect after years apart, it appears as though the time they spend together emulates the joyful days of the past. For Evan, the story is also about homecoming, for when he falls in love with Caroline so suddenly, it’s as if he has fallen in love with the city itself, desiring to discover it once again. Evan wants to be written into this world the way Emily knows him – a child lost in the city he left for the US. In Caroline’s Bikini, Gunn’s language doesn’t disappoint. It’s immersive and stimulating. Whether Emily contemplates the past, describes pubs and the taste of gin, expresses her concerns about the lack of plot or Evan’s well-being, she always does it in a highly balanced way, carefully weighing how poetic or how prosaic each sentence should be: ‘So Caroline. Caroline. And what was left of Evan but this shell of a man now, grey husk, with no one to be with but me? What was left of me?’
Gunn has created multiple stories within Caroline’s Bikini, carefully connecting characters and places with threads of emotions, dreams and nostalgia. Once you start reading it, there will be nowhere to hide from Emily and Evan, sitting in a pub, sipping their gin and tonic, their smiles like the storyline, suspended in time.