At a time when it seems as if a new mass shooting takes place in the US almost every day, the publication of Scottish writer Douglas Bruton’s Mrs Winchester’s Gun Club could hardly be more timely. Set in America at the turn of the 20th century, and based on a true story, the novel tells the tale of Sarah Winchester, a grief-stricken woman who has lost both her husband and her daughter. Having inherited a fortune thanks to her husband’s ownership of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, Sarah is plagued by a sense of guilt for the deaths of people who have been killed by guns manufactured by the firm.
Sent “west” by a spiritualist who she visits in a bid to gain closure, she merely receives confirmation of her family’s misdemeanours. Winchester then begins to build a huge house, for herself and for the spirits of those killed by Winchester guns, in a bid to ease her conscience.
The concept is brilliant. It is very easy to think of a gun company or a cigarette company as just another business, and the people behind it as merely businessmen or women. However, while upbeat personal stories of people whose lives are touched by the creation of a life-saving product are often used in marketing for the companies that make them, the equivalent tales of the lives which are ended or blighted by “vice” companies are rarely, if ever, related.
Told through the voices of dead characters – all victims of Winchester guns – the stories range from that of a young Peeping Tom shot by the father of the girl on whom he was spying, to that of a Londonder inspired by a Wild West show at Earl’s Court, who saves up for a Winchester which is then used to kill her by a man who owes her money. All of their tales are varied, bloody and violent, yet equally tragic.
This is the first foray into adult fiction for former teacher Bruton, who is well-known for his award-winning short stories, as well as his children’s book, The Chess Piece Magician. Bruton’s preference for short form fiction is evident in this book, which is, essentially, a series of short stories about the abbreviated lives of the Winchester victims.
Although the concept is strong, I found it difficult to engage with many of the characters due to the short-lived nature of their presence. Meanwhile, Mrs Winchester’s own story felt so interrupted by the stories of the victims that it was also difficult to form any real attachment to her.
That said, Bruton’s character studies are so accomplished that forming attachments to characters does not seem to matter as much as it might. Telling the stories of numerous deaths, all by the same method, could prove repetitive in the hands of some writers, but Bruton uses the victims’ voices to ruminate on the wastefulness of it all, and the deaths, told in the first person, are beautifully and thoughtfully written.
“I followed soon after, my own blood spilling in the dirt and the sky as blue as faraway and my every snatched breath feeling like my last,” recalls one victim, a soldier. “My final thought was not understanding what purpose was served on that day by so many men dying.”
“I felt no pain,” explains another. “Just the wind taken from me, punched from me, again and again.”
This particular victim makes reference to everyone who has had
a hand in his death – from the man who sold the rifle, to Mrs Winchester’s husband – the “someone with money to set up that business... grown fat and rich on what was sold to Howie’s Pa.” It is a chain that we, in the modern day, would do well to remember. Jane Bradley
Mrs Winchester’s Gun Club, by Douglas Bruton, Scotland Street Press, 300pp, £9.99