There’s something so satisfying about a single-edition essay. Notting Hill Editions does them. And so does Sylph Editions, in the form of the Cahier Series, published jointly with the Centre for Writers & Translators of the American University of Paris. The Series includes all kinds of interesting writing and I treasure the ones I have on my shelves.
I recently ordered Kirsty Gunn’s Going Bush, number 27 in the Cahier Series. (Her My Katherine Mansfield Project was published by Notting Hill Editions a year or two ago.) I’ve read her novellas and her wonderful rambling novel The Big Music, inspired and structured around the classical highland bagpipe pibroch. She is such an original writer, following her own beautiful sentences as they explore place and memory and carry within their syntax a lyrical and haunting music.
Going Bush is a memory of a particular kind of New Zealand bush. Not park, not fields, not farmland, not mythical forest. Bush.
That growth was everywhere, dense through my childhood and close and rotting — smelling, damp underfoot where the light couldn’t reach the matted canopy of what we called, then, ‘natives’ — those trees indigenous to New Zealand, the Matai and the Totara and the Miro as I know to call them now — only, ‘natives’ we said then, because they were not oak or pine or ash.
And it’s a memory of a kind of realization, occurring around puberty, when your body often seems to betray you, with its changes and odours, its mysteries, that a place can be a solace, even in its darkness and its stagnant water. A place of refuge for a girl alone in her otherness in social and domestic life, in this case a family picnic when cousins turn out to be hostile and cruel.
Though the undergrowth was thick and dark, it wanted her to be inside it, wanted her to run faster and faster to find its secret river, to touch her and hold her and whisper and call, along with the bellbirds and the tuis and fantails she could hear, somewhere up there, in the dark trees, flitting in and out of the dark branches like ghost birds and spirits of ancestors with their calls like the sound of bells: Come to me, come to me, come to me.
Going Bush is a gorgeous edition, with a mixed-media work by Kirsty Gunn’s sister Merran Gunn reproduced throughout to offer a visual correlative to the text. It resembles the river the narrator is drawn to, that offers her mud and weeds and cool water:
‘Use me,’ the river bank had told her then. It had said the same again as she had stood like there a mighty tree, dark and silent, while the terrible cousins ran straight on past her — and she had let them go.