Gun Love

1 of 17
Gun Love
256 pages
Early in PEN International president Jennifer Clement's fourth novel, Gun Love, Pearl and her mother, Margot, hear that conjoined baby alligators have emerged from a creek near the trailer park where they reside. Before long, reporters arrive to inspect the woebegone creatures; they're found bound to a palm tree with sewing thread. Three days later, they're dead and the reporters have fled. When Pearl and Margot eventually go to see the wreckage for themselves, they discover the final indignity: Someone has blown the alligators to bits. 

Gun Love makes a compelling home of Florida's overlooked corners—like the scruffy piece of property, adjacent to the town dump, where Margot and Pearl live out of their Mercury Topaz, a vast distance from the tourist-filled beaches and theme parks. In Pearl's eyes, "we were nowhere," yet from this nowhere, Clement has created a singularly vivid somewhere. Margot, a former child of wealth, keeps stashes of Limoges porcelain and Baccarat wineglasses in the car's trunk. A neighbor plants 63 Barbie dolls outside her trailer, perplexing the bees that hover around their synthetic heads. A pastor organizes volunteers to hold up signs alongside the highway advertising Drive-Thru Prayer.

At the trailer park, Pearl's existence is threatened by two forces: guns and bad men. In the novel's buoyantly episodic opening chapters, gunfire is everywhere; later, the sound is invasive as a choking vine. Eli, a new arrival, courts Pearl's mother and lands them knee-deep in a dangerous plot—leading to a collision that will alter Pearl's life forever.

Though this world is harrowing, it's also fortified with ample wit and tenderness. The sweet sorrow of doomed maternal love is at the novel's thrumming center, as is the author's cockeyed affection for the region. "In our part of Florida everything was puzzled," Pearl tells us. Gun Love potently illuminates this puzzled land, and the complicated fates of those who dwell in the pockets visitors won't find on a map.
— Laura Van Den Berg