Kristjana Gunnars’ The Substance of Forgetting (1992)

Taking on the work of Kristjana Gunnars could take you in a variety of directions.

Off the shelf came a short story collection (Any Day But This, 2004), a poetry collection (Silence of the Country, 2002) and a collection of essays (which remains one of my favourites of her works because it is so book-soaked), Stranger at the Door: Writers and the Act of Writing (2004).

I re-read portions of Stranger at the Door and, with Women Unbound in mind, was particularly interested to see that she calls attention to two influences that appear on some other participants’ reading lists: Hélène Cixous and bell hooks.

Cixous she describes as an inspiration “not just because she talks about being a woman writing in today’s world, but also because she is able to combine rigorous thoughts with creative expression, and the result is sparkling”.

And she recognizes bell hooks because “she is radical and full aware of a writer’s (and a teacher’s) constraints, and the realism that is behind much of her radicalism is gratifying”.

I could have easily re-read this collection but I wanted a narrative, so I returned to one of her works that I’d enjoyed previously: The Substance of Forgetting (1992).

It is more conventionally structured than Rose in the Garden, with “proper” chapters, a narrator, characters, and events, but it is a quiet, reflective read, another one of those slim books that you might think you could race through in an afternoon, but which you find yourself having to set aside, a read fallowed.

Epigraphs from both Julia Kristeva and W.B. Yeats would have offered clues that this is not your average novel with a beginning, a middle and an end and lots of the expected in between, but seemingly simple sentences infused with Big Ideas that make me wish I’d studied cultural theory, psychoanalysis, post-structuralism and semiotics, with poetic images that linger after the page has been turned.

“Through the crack [in the curtains] I could see new snow flurries outside. I was thinking of the other lives. Lives we could have led but did not choose. Choices we did not make. The alternative paths. That what we choose is real only because we choose it. Perhaps what we have not chosen is even more real. Perhaps those lives are being led anyway in some other realm. There are official stories and then there are unofficial stories. Sometimes we break through the official story. We escape into an alternate story.”

Do you see what I mean? It’s both very simple and incredibly complicated. It makes my reader’s brain hurt a little. But just a little bit, and in a good way.

What about you: has your reader’s brain hurt in a good way lately?