The Big Music by Kirsty Gunn
Faber & Faber $39.99

Kirsty Gunn's first fictions were meticulously rendered evocations of physical and psychological space, often with characters haunted and hunted to an almost pathological degree.

In the New Zealand-born, London/Dundee-based writer's fifth novel, personal and geographical worlds remain authentic and compelling, while the emotional range is more textured, finding room for joy and fulfilment as well as distress and alienation.

You can't talk about The Big Music without mentioning its form. It doesn't read like, or even look like a novel in any conventional sense. It's a compendium of papers ostensibly found in a grey house and a small stone hut, and then handed to the author, who is and is not Kirsty Gunn.

So we get transcriptions, book summaries, house plans, charts and commentaries, accompanied by footnotes that treat the story as if it were an academic treatise. Plus there are the 80-odd pages of glossary, musical scores and architectural drawings to follow. It's one of the more singular books you'll read this decade.


It's also enormously satisfying. I started off hesitant about the story of a Scottish bagpiper who strives to compose a work encapsulating his life and the lives of significant others.

I ended up short of breath and long on admiration.

John Sutherland is old and ill. He's come back to the Highlands to write the "Lament for Himself". It's something he can take into the dark with him, since "there'll be nothing but silence soon".

So he walks out into the hills, carrying a stolen baby girl. He needs her, he says with
dislocating honesty and egotism, "for the tune", music that will be sky, river, peaks, times past and present.

Gunn has structured the novel like a Piobaireachd, which is: a) a word you'd kill for at Scrabble; b) a classic bagpipe composition of theme followed by variations and embellishments. It's a concept that could dissipate focus and momentum. Instead, it extends and deepens them, in sequences of glowing, darkening scenes, memories and reveries.

Multiple viewpoints make events both resonant and ambivalent. We hear from estranged sons and daughters. From the dogged, sturdy man whom "they call for with the animals and the land". From those who, in spite of striving to define themselves through differences, repeat the rhythms of their parents' lives.

Like Sutherland's weaving Lament, the novel has much to say about love: between generations or couples, for places or music. A mother "lifts her warm baby daughter like a cake from her basket". Another stares at her newborn son, silently begging, "Just give him to me. I could lick him clean."

Gunn writes with a firm sense of the world and its demands. A motif of domestic husbandry beats through the book, usually in the actions and thoughts of women characters, those whose lives of "strength but little power" extend across two centuries of "music and weather ... large and changing skies, the tenderness of brief summers".


She writes also with virtuosity and restraint, in shards of sentences with almost-perfectly crafted cadences. Questions press and plead; dialogue streams and searches.

True to the piping it constantly references, The Big Music returns at the end to its opening sequence, on an autumn day so blue, it seems as if it will stay with you forever.

Again like music and that day, this novel won't finish just because you've finished reading it.

David Hill is a Taranaki writer.