Sundial Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year 2007

Attending an award ceremony at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival was a new experience for me.  This was an enjoyable event as all the shortlisted authors delivered readings from their work; John Burnside – A Lie about My Father (Non-fiction), Maggie Ferguson – George MacKay Brown: The Life (First Book), Robin Robertson – Swithering (Poetry) and, of course Kirsty Gunn – The Boy and The Sea.  All the readings happened before the winner was known and Kirsty Gunn decided not to read but to talk about the process of writing the book.

Synopsis

At the start of a summer’s day, Ward is waiting on the beach.  His friend, Alex, wants him to come to a party at Alison’s where there’ll be girls and drinks and possibilities of fun.  But Ward is shy and self-conscious and struggling to move from under the weight of his powerful father.  He’d rather wait on the beach for the surf to come up.  As the sun moves towards its highest point, the tide changes and Ward is faced with a dramatic event that will change his life forever.

What the author said about the creative process

When she starts to write a book,  the plot is not worked out and sometimes details reveal themselves in the course of writing. In this case she knew her main character was an adolescent boy and that the story would be a novella. This ruled out the first person narrative because we all know what teenage boys think about every 7 minutes!  So she created an omniscient but anonymous 3rd person narrator, which allowed her to get inside the head of her boy and avoid the pitfalls of a fullblown stream of consciousness.

Ward had turned away but still Alex had gone on and on, about him and Jenny together ….

“Really”

“Shut up” Because really, you know.  Does he want to have to think about this stuff?  Imagine it?  Like the dark nights you get this time of year, soft, and Alex and Jenny, they go to this special place in the dunes …

“Just shut up” he’d said again.

But too late, because by then all of it was in.  The words. The story.  What’s going on with the two of them stuck in his head … And he really, really doesn’t want to go to this party.  Like Ward and Alex won’t be sitting round like they used to, you know, just be with each other, then leave … No.  Now it’s got to be talk, talk, talk and having to do some big act, kids lighting fires, making it down on the beach … A beer or two.  Someone’s got some grass, cool …. It’s all just ….

Ward puts his hands to his ears like he might have put a shell there once.

… Too much.

The voice worked well for me.  Knowing, troubled and naive all at the same time – just like an adolescent.  

Ward’s sections are interwoven with sections about the sea, who is female.  The same omniscient narrator is at work here and the prose acquires a distinctively lyrical edge.

It is early morning, same day we’re talking about but so early, before the boy is at the table with his father, the words exchanged, and the light is barely come in across the water but it’s starting now, that slow, crazy-slow slip of the dawn coming up over the edge of the horizon and making the sea turn, swell, move herself towards the sun.

Prose not to be analysed for grammatical accuracy but for effect.  The sea is strangely soothing, hypnotic even,  but gradually acquires an aura of danger and malevolence as the climax approaches.  I would suggest that this novella (140 pages)  is  better read in one sitting to allow complete immersion into the mood and cadence of the text. (Sitting in Princes Street Gardens during the Edinburgh Festival, complete with attendant interruptions,  is not the ideal scenario!)

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