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By Shelly Ridenour

MARCH 1, 1999: 

"This Place You Return to Is Home" by Kirsty Gunn, Grove/Atlantic, 288 pages, $22

About a week ago, a friend plucked Kirsty Gunn's new collection of short stories, "This Place You Return to Is Home," off my bookshelf and said, "Must be a nice career to have."

He was referring to the book's diminutive size - coming in right at 200 pages and just over 7 inches tall, it is a hardcover small and light enough to tuck easily into a coat pocket - and the fact that the New Zealand novelist has indeed made a career out of publishing pint-sized fiction. The books' small physical stature is deceptive, though; once you open them up, Gunn's storytelling expands like a family of nesting dolls set free from their mother.

And that's an apt metaphor, too, for the characters who populate the wide open, rural New Zealand landscapes of Gunn's stories - only most of the children, be they grown-up or not, are seeking to rein in some of the sprawl of their lives. The best way to simplify? Return home, retreat into the safety of their metaphorical mothers' bodies. Of course, this is never a true fix as much as a temporary elixir; Gunn drives, uh, home the message of "You can't go home again" with a velvet hammer.

She executes a neat trick with the two-part opener, "Not Much to Go On," the story of a young mother who returns to her hometown with her three small children in tow. The irony, of course, is that her children long to be in their own hometown, the city where their abandoned father awaits. Set in past tense and told with a third-person voice, the mirroring components offer the tale first from the mother's perspective, then her daughter's. One man's liberation is another's jail, Gunn taunts in that quiet way of hers. But wait a minute - abandoned father? Why? How? Satisfactory pay-offs rarely come in Gunn's work, which flows with all the consistency and tangibility of a dream. Even when it's good for you, you're still left with lingering doubts and hungry - but not famished - curiosity.

More of the same in "Everyone Is Sleeping" and "Tinsel Bright," until nostalgia is a bitter pill best left unswallowed and memory is just poison for your head. Idealism clouds judgment. Hindsight is fuzzy. Isolation breeds isolation, and families can't fix the frustrations they created. By the time page two hundred is reached, shadows of the past haunting characters more than in any Stephen King horror story, you realize how truly deceptive size is, as Gunn's weary but ultimately fearless voice weighs awfully heavy in your coat pocket.

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