Rebecca Kauffman’s second novel reminds me a little of Elizabeth Strout’s fiction (Olive Kitteridge, My Name Is Lucy Barton …). Perhaps it’s because The Gunners is set in a small town in the eastern US, and it’s characters are battlers. We are invited into their world when they are children, and then later as adults to see how they’re faring, and to look at the ongoing effects of the past on the present – something else Strout does.
The main character, young Mikey Hennesy, discovers at the age of six that he is blind in one eye. Well, he kind of knew that but thought it was normal. He lives alone with his dad, a quiet, unsmiling man who works at the local abattoir. Dad doesn’t take Mikey for an eye test, and the boy carries on as before.
Mikey is a lonely child but is rescued by Sally, who he meets on the school bus. Both children are a bit lost, and so begins a friendship. When feisty young Alice decides to set up a gang of kids meeting at an empty and decrepit house, she invites Mikey and Sally to join. They call themselves The Gunners after the name on the letter-box and stick together through most of their childhood.
Skip forward a decade or so and Mikey, still living in the same town, discovers he is losing his sight completely. At around the same time, there is news of Sally’s suicide. The remaining Gunners, who haven’t seen each other for years decide to spend some time together after the funeral and talk of old times. Each harbours a secret about Sally and her reasons for leaving the group when they were sixteen – and in each case, it’s a secret that has been gnawing away at them ever since.
The Gunners is a simply told story, weaving together events from the past and the present, but it really packs a punch. The characters are each interesting and well-rounded, but it is Mikey, the good guy, who really tugs at the heartstrings. How can someone so deserving of love manage to live so long without it? Kauffman also writes with wisdom about friendship and loyalty, capturing the rivalries and one-upmanship that can make childhood relationships so bumpy.
I loved this book. once I began reading Mikey’s story, I couldn’t put it down. I will be looking out for Kauffman’s next book for sure. Four and a half out of five from me.