Gun Love, about a mother and daughter who live in their car in a Florida trailer park and the “gun love” and trafficking they get tangled up in, is always dark but never heavy; Jennifer Clement’s prose is so gentle and beautiful that I’m convinced she could write a textbook about the most awful subjects imaginable and it would still be a joy to read. Gun Love has the close-focus, raw feel of an indie movie–in fact, it has a lot in common topically and tonally with 2017’s The Florida Project–but it’s never brutal or tortured. It’s an “issue book” that’s actually enjoyable to read–and what an enormous accomplishment that is, especially when the issue (America’s toxic relationship with guns) is so fraught and urgent.
You can read my full review below.
Gun Love by Jennifer Clement
- publisher: Hogarth Press (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
- publication date: March 6, 2018
- length: 256 pages
- cover price: $25.00
My mother was a cup of sugar. You could borrow her anytime.
My mother was so sweet, her hands were always birthday-party sticky. Her breath held the five flavors of Life Savers candy.
And she knew all the love songs that are a university for love. She knew “Slowly Walk Close to Me,” “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?,” “Born Under a Bad Sign,” and all the I’ll-kill-you-if-you-leave-me songs.
But sweetness is always looking for Mr. Bad and Mr. Bad can pick out Miss Sweet in any crowd.
—Gun Love, page 1
There’s a corner that stories written in the first person get backed into, and it’s that in the real world, most people don’t articulate their thoughts very well. First person stories need to sound authentic–you can’t sock-puppet haunting, lyrical prose from someone who wouldn’t speak and think in haunting, lyrical ways–but stories also need to be well-written, and those goals are sometimes at odds.
Gun Love is written in the first person from the perspective of a 14-year-old girl, Pearl France, who’s been raised all her life in a car parked in a decaying trailer park. She’s malnourished and tiny for her age; she’s being slowly poisoned by the dump behind the park and the Raid her mother sprays every night to keep the mosquitos down. School is a joke with no bearing on her life, and she doesn’t even have a proper birth certificate. Worst of all, her mother has fallen in love with Eli, a man with a deep undercurrent of trouble that Pearl senses from the start.
Pearl has every right to hate her life and never see the beauty in it. What’s amazing about Gun Love, however, is that it’s a book very deeply concerned with beauty, even in the most difficult of places. Pearl’s voice is as haunting and lyrical as they come, but it somehow rings completely true.
A frequent complaint I have on this blog is that some books revel in darkness and grittiness in ways that are tortuous to read. The events of Gun Love are shocking and horrible–unsurprisingly, it’s thick with gun violence–but Clement’s touch is so light that I never found myself dragged down by it. In one scene, a pair of conjoined alligator twins are found in the river near the trailer park. Reporters and gawkers rush into the trailer park to take in their beauty and strangeness; then, overnight, someone shoots the twins to pieces with a machine gun. It’s a senseless and yet understandable act. In Gun Love, beauty and death entwine in intoxicating and original ways that you can’t look away from–you don’t even want to look away.
It helps that every single character in the novel is fascinating and empathetic, even the murderous ones. My particular favorites were Mr. Brodsky, an aging Jewish foster parent who takes in “shoots,” children whose biological parents have been murdered, and Noelle, an autistic 30-year-old woman who loves Barbie dolls and speaks mostly in fortune cookie quotes. If Clement were less skilled, these people might have come off like pathetic caricatures of poverty and desperation. Instead, they are vibrant, resilient, and full of agency, lovable even when they do unforgivable things.
Over the course of the novel, Pearl hardens and freezes as her mother softens and melts, a testament to how hard it is to grow up at all, much less to grow up in circumstances so literally toxic. (Gun Love definitely has YA crossover appeal.) The mother/daughter relationship in this book reminded me of White Oleander by Janet Fitch, though the mothers in question couldn’t be more different. The through-line of violence traveling through generations is powerful and adds even more depth to the novel.
Another favorite through-line of mine was Selena Quintanilla’s murder. A Mexican couple at the trailer park traffic in guns (as do most of their white neighbors) but they also idolize Selena and mourn her murder daily, especially the wife, Corazón. It’s a taut irony that drives the narrative home without feeling overdone.
In Gun Love, guns are Pandora’s box–its characters can’t live with them yet can’t live without them; they can’t live with the hatred and suffering they dole out yet also can’t live without the power and joy they bring, too. This novel is a nuanced and empathetic gift. Don’t miss it. 5/5 stars.
My copy of Gun Love came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.