Caroline’s Bikini by Kirsty Gunn

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Reviewed by Harriet

Alright’ I said, ‘I’ll try’…’But I’ve never done this kind of thing before’ is what I would have said next, I’m sure, as it still seems a strange thing to do, be involved in this kind of writing, the sort of project that was being suggested to me by Evan now.

‘I really need you to write this story down for me, Nin’, he was saying, in no uncertain terms, if I think about it fully. ‘Really I do…’ – and yes, it did feel like a new kind of idea for me, this, a different way to spend my time. It did. It felt new.

Emily Stuart, the narrator of this book which is both a novel and not a novel as you’ve ever met one before, is a writer, but though she’s had a few short stories published, she spends most of her life writing advertising copy and book reviews. So when her childhood friend Evan asks her to take on a most unusual project, she’s understandably hesitant. Evan, in his forties, has been living in America for decades, but has come back to live and work in London. Through a friend, he’s found a room at the top of a grand Georgian house in Richmond, a classy suburb of London, where he plans to stay until he finds his feet – ‘it’s a fun scene’, he’s been told. But the minute he walks through the door and meets his landlady, the beautiful Caroline, something happens. ‘”Hi. I’m Caroline”, she’d said. And – BANG’. Yes, Evan has fallen instantly and irrevocably in love with Caroline, and now he wants his dear friend Emily, always called Nin, to write the story of that great love.

Caroline’s Bikini is subtitled ‘An Arrangement of a Novel with an Introduction and Some Further Material’. It is a book about writing, but if that sounds as if it might be boring or challenging, it is neither of those things. In fact it’s one of the most delightful things I’ve read in a long time. It’s witty and charming, sometimes quite heart-wrenching, and I found it quite hard to put down. What we get is not Evan’s story, or at least we get that only obliquely. Instead, we have Emily’s efforts to write what Evan tells her, and her musings on the situation and its implications. The two of them meet frequently in different, increasingly trendy, pubs in West London and drink large quantities of increasingly trendy gin. Evan often turns up with his own scrawled notes, which Emily then has not only to transcribe but also to make readable – he tends to write high-flown prose and she is determined to make his words sound real, to achieve what she thinks of as emotional reality At times she is forced to use her imagination to flesh out what he’s telling her.

She worries constantly about the nature of what she is producing – Evan describes it as a novel, but she thinks it might be an essay, or a meditation on courtly love. For this parallel occurs to her very early on. As we would learn from a section of the ‘Further Material’ marked Courtly Love, this is a convention which started in the middle ages, in which a knight falls deeply in unrequited love for a beautiful, unattainable lady. The obvious parallels are with Petrarch and Laura or Dante and Beatrice. For Evan’s love is defined by Caroline’s unattainability. Not that she’s happily married – far from it, by the sound of it. Her husband is away a great deal, and Evan overhears arguments when he’s at home. But the one time that he has a chance to move things further, when Caroline comes to his room late one evening to unburden herself, and makes a tentative move towards him, he backs off – he had too much respect for her, he tells Emily.

And so things go on, starting in the winter and ending in high summer, with Evan falling apart more and more. He’s a successful banker, but he turns up for his meetings with Emily in increasingly dilapidated clothes, sweaters full of holes and ancient sweat pants. He’s losing weight and careless of his appearance, and Emily is deeply concerned about him. For Emily cares deeply about Evan. Inseparable as children, when they were next-door neighbours, they have managed to remain friends even when separated by the Atlantic, and there is a great deal of love between them. But as we come to realise, Evan loves her as an old friend, but Emily is really in love with Evan. Not that she foregrounds this at all – on the contrary, it slips out almost without her realising it. So the whole process – meeting, drinking, writing – is increasingly both heart-wrenchingly painful and enjoyable, though Evan is blithely unaware of the subtext.

This truly is an extraordinarily brilliant achievement. It’s peppered with quasi-learned footnotes, with lots of extra stuff to enjoy in the 60 pages of the Further Material, ranging from the background of Emily and Evan’s childhood friendship to notes on ‘Narrative Construction’ and ‘Literary Context’ and ‘Alternative Narratives’ and much more besides. The ‘editor’ (Gunn herself, we assume) instructs you to use this section ‘As you will…Just flick straight through, or find parts you might want to read in more depth’. You won’t be surprised to hear that I read the whole thing, greedy for more and sorry the book ever had to end. Undoubtedly one of my books of the year for 2018 and highly recommended.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Kirsty Gunn, Caroline’s Bikini (Faber, 2018) ISBN 9780571339327, hardback, 342 pages.

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