Book review: The Big Music, Kirsty Gunn

Kirsty Gunn has taken the essential elements of the Highland bagpipe tradition to create a rhythmic, lyrical tale. Photograph: Dan Phillips
Kirsty Gunn has taken the essential elements of the Highland bagpipe tradition to create a rhythmic, lyrical tale. Photograph: Dan Phillips
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Faber and Faber, £20

IN HER foreword to The Big Music, Kirsty Gunn whets readers’ appetites with a reference to modernism in literature, “and to its glorious implications upon the construction of written texts”.

She cites T S Eliot’s introduction to Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood in which “he informs the reader of the importance of meeting the challenges of another kind of fiction that is nothing like a conventional story, to understand that the novel need not be just a simple form of communication from and about the real world but, like a poem, can be intricately and fully ‘written.’ ” So, is the intricately written The Big Music a novel at all?

Booker prize winner D B C Pierre has called it “a landscape... haunting and spacious.” “Like nothing else I’ve read,” comments Adam Mars Jones, both Faber authors, providing pre-publication flourishes for the book. Mars Jones’s guarded ambiguity may be a caution, or simply the sound of dumbfounded awe. When Gunn refers to her book as a “novel” she awards it inverted commas.

As it turns out, The Big Music is both challenging and conventional, a “novel” which will satisfy those who love poetry and narrative prose alike; it is often lyrical, sometimes flinty, soft as a bog, or as potently smouldering as a peat fire, smoking, secretive, intriguing. Much of it is devoted to history and to the mystical landscape of Sutherland, expressed in the language of nature and music, redolent too of human tragedy and resistance – and of transcendence, expressed through the making of the singular soaring music of the Highland bagpipe, an enticement even to those who – like the novel’s most richly realised character, John Callum MacKay Sutherland of the Grey House – come to reject it, but who are drawn to it eventually as their birthright, their one true art.

Johnnie Sutherland, born in 1923, is, at 83 when the book begins, the latest (and last?) of his family’s line of composers and pipers, each of them masters of that most rigorous form of pipe music known as piobaireachd, or Ceol Mor (the “big music”). Johnnie is dying, mocking mortality, climbing his hill at the crack of dawn, crooking a baby at his elbow as he rises, bent on completing his last hurrah – the Lament for Himself – with the stolen child his inspiration while, in the Grey House, the stirring occupants – housekeeper Margaret, her husband Iain and Helen, her daughter, the baby’s mother, discover the absence, the old boy absconded, on the trail to his secret bothy, there to transcribe melodious dream tunes into notation. Below him the skirl of the chase begins.

For 23 pages the writing is charmed, written in breath, a sustained mellifluous beautifully cadenced stream of prose that appears to hover above the scene as Johnnie flees, pursuing his destiny. Gunn inhabits him, intuits his panicked excitement, his guilt, (hearing voices of accusation: “You took her away”), his isolation. This “first movement”, as Gunn describes it, mirrors the opening refrains of a piobaireachd as it ribbons through clear air. It is rare to read anything so riveting.

What follows is both epic in ambition, and less intensively sustained. Gunn delineates the essentials of Highland musical bagpipe tradition, exploring the nuances of place and its effects, in what she refers to as “a narrative made up of journal entries, papers and inserted sections of domestic history” that are more than compilation and less (and more) than something made up – a phrase replete with double meaning.

In a book with more themes than characters – tackling duty, emigration and return, home, belonging, the process of making a work of art, and the price to be paid for that devotion in relationships – not least those of fathers and sons – it is sometimes uncertain what is “made up” and what is fact.

Old Johnnie’s story stares into the past: his blighted relationship with his father, his leaving home, the passionate love affair with Margaret. His life, more complicated than most in its tangled messiness, lures Callum, his child by marriage, to come from London to the Grey House to tend his father’s dying days, which re-opens Callum’s teenage tryst with scholarly Helen and darkens the novel’s sense of legacy and secrets – a revelation of hidden places in landscape and memory.

The book is structured in piobaireachd form in four movements, its narrative core (which divides into monologue and dialogue in places) interrupted by disquisitions on composition, location and themes, with inserted comments and copious footnotes throughout the text and amplifications of meaning or sources.

All of this makes it sound like a fruitless pursuit for the lover of stories, or an insomniac’s answer to prayer. It is neither. Instead it captivates and illuminates. Take it slowly. Some of its characters lack development, in a way which makes you want more of them, not less. Perhaps Callum’s story is in the offing?