“My mother was a cup of sugar. You could borrow her anytime.”
When a book opens like that, you know what is coming isn’t anything you’ve read before. Gun Love, by Jennifer Clement, doesn’t start in any of the usual places. At the story’s centre is Pearl, a girl who has grown up living in a car with her mother in Central Florida. Her mother, a sweet, naive woman who sees the brokeness in others, ran away with Pearl as soon as she was born. They live next to a trailer park and interact with the other outcasts, including a gun running priest and a man with a shady past who takes up with Pearl’s mother, much to Pearl’s chagrin.
“My mother was so sweet, her hands were always birthday-party sticky. Her breath held the five flavours of Life Savers candy … But sweetness is always looking for Mr. Bad and Mr. Bad can pick out Miss Sweet in any crowd. My mother opened her mouth in a great wide O and breathed him right into her body.”
Pearl and her mother’s entire existence is surrounded by guns, albeit very little violence, until one day the unthinkable happens.
Pearl muses: “… You think you get a dose of tragedy and that’s it. You think it can’t get worse and that you’re saved now. But tragedy is not like medicine. You don’t get a dose like a pill or a spoonful. Tragedy always kicks in.”
Clement’s story is narrowly focussed. Pearl goes to school, but we never see her there. We don’t see much beyond the borders of the trailer park for most of the book. Pearl’s teachers never question her oddities (and she always does her homework, even when there isn’t a good place to do it), or why very few social workers come looking for her, or how they interact with people outside their immediate community. It’s an effective technique in making Pearl’s choices in the latter half of the book seem natural, even as we look for a better way out for her.
I don’t think Clement’s book is pro gun, but the questions of guns and access to them have two sides, here at least. On the one hand, a gun causes Pearl a huge problem. On the other, guns are the solution to another.
Gun Love examines how we love the wrong people, or how we love the right people and they love us back but they’re not so good at providing a safe, healthy life. This type of love isn’t easy or clean, but it exists.