Reviewed: Gunflower, Laura Jean McKay, Scribe
If pressed, I would describe Laura Jean McKay’s Gunflower as a collection of stories about bodies. Divided into three sections—‘birth’, ‘life’ and ‘death’—the stories explore the way bodies, with all their needs and desires, are controlled, exploited and disregarded. Yet I like that this doesn’t quite get to the heart of them, that these stories don’t fit together as neatly as that.
In the opening story, ‘Cats at the Fire Front’, McKay inverts the categories of ‘livestock’ and ‘domestic pet’. While the narrator, Jean, considers the possibility of having to sell the farm on which she and her husband produce ‘catton’—a cotton substitute made from shed cat fur—their chicken, Roberta, and sheep, Dora, potter peaceably around the house. As in her debut novel The Animals in that Country, McKay often draws inspiration from the complex relationship between humans and nonhuman animals to produce stories that are, like dreams, at once strange and intimately familiar.
Yet while animals are central to many of the stories and microfiction in the collection, others are concerned with distinctly human matters: real estate, workers’ rights and class. And though the subsequent stories share something of the off-centre tenor of ‘Cats at the Fire Front’, it is one out of only a handful that contain overtly speculative elements. Many merely push up against the borders of reality: an aging farmer observes a cow being fitted with a porthole; a boar hunter takes a woman ‘pigging’ on what is ostensibly a first date; and a mother seeks connection as the country enters lockdown to slow the spread of a deadly respiratory virus.
In their introduction to Material Ecocriticism, cultural theorists Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann describe the world’s material phenomena—its people, animals and rocks, but also the cannulas, guns and face masks—as ‘knots in a vast network of agencies, which can be “read” and interpreted as forming narratives, stories’. This, I think, is what gives McKay’s peculiar stories their familiarity: her ability to read the entanglement of the human and nonhuman worlds, and to write as if the connective tissue of Iovino and Oppermann’s ‘vast network of agencies’ were as material as the bodies it holds in relation to one another.
Perhaps the defining quality of Gunflower is the porousness of the world depicted therein. Houses are surrounded by sea, fog and floodwater that encroach on the doorstep and seep through the cracks. McKay’s often isolated characters are haunted by loved ones, and by greater history; time and distance are negated by longing and trauma. In the eponymous story, an American couple enters international waters to seek abortion services that are no longer accessible in the country’s southern states. Onboard the Gerda Faal, Joan feels ‘the presence of the thousands of women, from the Philippines to Madagascar, who had passed through the ship’s services’.
Towards the end of the collection, in ‘Site’, it is the land itself that is afflicted by the nightmare of invasion, a ghostly ship cleaving through the bay where April eagerly waits to continue an affair with her ex, Andi. April’s casual acceptance of the appearance of the ghost ship speaks to the insufficiency of our attitude as settler-colonisers to a bloody history that continues into the present. Over the course of the narrative, April’s personal life is gradually eclipsed by the intrusion of the ship, until, at the close of the story:
A strong calloused hand reaches over the railing to propel her to an emptiness now more ship than April. The faces of the tourists grow even paler as they clamber up behind her. No caves, no Andi, no multi-corporate clients and their diversity – everyone on the ship looks like she does against the waves of earth and house. Higher on the glowing deck, she puts charcoal to wood and starts sketching. Her point of vantage at the prow. The plants, the hills beyond. She knows the feeling of discovery. Of seeing it all for the first time. The sense that the ship will grind on through the land.
Like ‘Site’, many of the stories in Gunflower end just as they seem to be approaching the edge of a cliff, giving rise to an uncomfortable sense of urgency. McKay’s ability to close the apparent distances between past and present, human and nonhuman, us and them, feels vital as we approach the precipice of the Anthropocene.