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Daughter Inherits a Disturbing Family Legacy

THE KEEPSAKE by Kirsty Gunn; Atlantic Monthly Press $22, 213 pages


This is the story of how a man can ruin a woman and how that woman can ruin her daughter. It is the story of a father who, by sexually abusing his daughter, can create holes so big in her that she trains her whole life, like a spider in a web, to find a man just like her father to fill up those holes.

Mother and daughter live together in the one-room apartment in a nondescript European city where mother and father conducted their obsessive, doomed courtship. Father leaves, unceremoniously slipping out for cigarettes in the middle of the night, and mother believes into perpetuity that he loves her and his daughter and will someday return. She becomes a dreamy, forgetful bundle of sexual favors bestowed on the doctors and pharmacists and shop owners who provide her with cigarettes and alcohol and heroin.

Her daughter's unenviable job is to call these men and say, "Come right over," and then hide in the bathroom, playing in the empty tub until her mother is quieted for the night. Mother kills herself slowly, after 11 years in this same small room, using heroin and alcohol. Daughter grows up looking for a man just like her father and her grandfather.

The narrator of this book, the daughter, emerges as a combination of disembodied parts, the ghosts and memories of her matrilineage. New Zealand author Kirsty Gunn, in this and her previous novel, "Rain," is a young master at conveying the true terror of the phrase "flesh and blood." Her main characters, in both novels young girls, have terrible secrets woven into their bodies by the carriers of terrible secrets, their mothers. The original crimes, though, were perpetrated by the men. The keepsake of the title is the skin of a horse the narrator's grandfather kills in front of his daughter when she is very young, wrapping it around her and then using it in his sexual assaults on our narrator's mother. The narrator grows up with it in the room she shares with her mother, slung over the back of the sofa, and later finds herself assaulted by a man who may actually be her father (it is not clear), on the same skin.

I cannot tell you how frightening Gunn's layered storytelling is. Many authors--Jeanette Winterson, for example--unsettle and disorient their readers first (Where am I? Which character is speaking? Didn't this happen a few pages ago?), intravenously dripping the necessary information into the text to create a story. This mimics the way victims of abuse are sometimes only slowly able to see patterns in their histories: Crimes like sexual abuse are committed over and over; families are cursed with a legacy, burdened with a secret, wounded by a need in their own childhood or a parent's. They become aware of the pattern in their lives, the plot of the story, far too late. Like the daughter in "The Keepsake," some of us can never get out of the room we share with our mother.

Suffocation is all too realistically conveyed in the tense jumpiness of Gunn's language: "Then, something. In the darkness, I hear it. A splinter. A tiny hole of light in the gorgeous velvet dark." "The sky hard and blue like slate with a sun that had no warmth in it, only good for a cruel kind of brightness that put edges into people's smiles, flashed silver off knives and bicycle spokes and locks . . . ."

This is relentless and beautiful language, used by an ageless girl, a living ghost. She imagines her mother living alone in the summers with her grandfather, her mother a girl "floating across the blue lawn in her white dress."

Sometimes there are writers who seem to be writing stories on flesh and in blood. The stories they write are written in their own blood, and the books are bloody. You hope--as in the case of Kathryn Harrison's recent book, "The Kiss," about her affair with her father--that the writing of a book, the telling of a story, shaman-like, can change the course of a terrible legacy, tell and thus disperse a terrible secret. Maybe, we hope for the author, her next novel will be picaresque, cheerful, light. The child will escape and the imagination will be freed.

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