Bloomsbury Circus, $30.00,
By the time I came to read Emily Perkins’s novel The Forrests, it had already attracted considerable controversy: on the one hand, there were the comparisons with Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust, and the now somewhat infamous Booker Prize prediction; on the other, there were the growing number of reports of readers who either didn’t like it or couldn’t finish it. At first I assumed this division would fit more or less neatly into the tired and, to my mind, artificial categories of “literary” readers and “ordinary” readers. But not so.
Several so-called “literary” readers, known to me, reacted negatively to the book, while at least one member of the Listener Book Club struggled to finish it. At the same time, other “ordinary” readers I spoke to found both beauty and poignancy in this story of an unremarkable family living through unremarkable times (Perkins concerns herself only glancingly with the larger society her characters inhabit).
So what is going on with this novel? Why the divisions? And why the anger, expressed by some readers, as if Perkins had somehow deliberately let them down?
In attempting to answer these questions I have to start with a much larger question, and that is, what do readers want from novels? The answer to this will, of course, vary from reader to reader, but I would hazard a guess that there is a vague consensus, hazy in outline, but encompassing, that fundamental to the writer-reader contract are notions of entertainment and enlightenment. We read to entertain ourselves, of course we do. And we read, whether consciously or not, to enlarge our understanding of human existence.
Without straying too far into F R Leavis territory, it does seem to me that aspects of what he called The Great Tradition persist even in the minds of the most post, postmodern readers. We read in order to learn how to live. The desire may be unconscious, but I believe it is what the majority of readers bring to the experience of reading.
I make no apology for reading The Forrests with these concepts in mind. It’s the only way I know how to read. I admit that there are some, not many, modern novelists who leave me with a sense of dismaying isolation (Michel Houellebecq, for example), as if novelists have renounced Shelley’s wake-up call to poets (for that, read writers) to act as mankind’s “unacknowledged legislators”, and can now only reflect the arbitrary and morally free-wheeling state of 21st-century existence.
I also admit to having struggled with some of Perkins’s earlier work, which seemed to grow out of just such a disconnected view of the world. But her brilliant Novel About my Wife, which preceded The Forrests, persuaded me that not only was Perkins a skilled and perceptive writer, she had found a way to capture the disconnectedness without conveying a sense of utter hopelessness. The very structure of that novel, with its intricate patterning, kept the possibility of meaning alive right up to its tragic ending.
Sadly, at least for me, this is not the case with The Forrests, a novel that, for all its moments of illumination, is essentially depressing. Perkins’s characters – the initially close, but ultimately scattered Forrest family – live lives of seemingly inescapable futility. Towards the end of the novel Dorothy, the main character (though not the only one from whose point of view the story is told) signs up to a Better Self Programme, the aim of which is to achieve personal growth through acceptance of the fact that there is no such thing as fate, and no stories other than the ones you invent for yourself. Perkins’s intention here is ironic (she does irony well), but what this passage highlights is the depressing reality that neither the Forrest parents, Frank and Lee, nor any of their four children, seem to have any real control over what happens to them. “ ‘This is what happens,’ ” Dorothy muses, after a hilarious scene (one of several set pieces – the best things in the book) in which her forthcoming marriage to Andrew is announced. “ ‘You end up with men. It’s normal.’ ”
The problem here is that in writing about people who accept, with varying degrees of fatalism, what happens to them, there is little chance of injecting the energy of change or conflict into the narrative. What conflicts there are lie so buried in the story (little of any significance is dramatised) that the reader is left wondering what exactly is at stake here. It’s hard to feel engaged when the style Perkins has adopted to tell this story is full of so many dying falls. Sentences follow one another flatly, as if all the characters can do is move from one task to another, doggedly accepting what fate has thrown at them. Here is Dorothy taking her youngest child, Hannah, for a swimming lesson:
In the dim, bare changing rooms Hannah was asking for lollies but she couldn’t have one now. Dorothy helped her out of her fleece-lined jacket and sweatshirt and T-shirt and pulled the elastic-topped trousers down and then up again so that she could see to get Hannah’s shoes off, and lifted her to sit on the bench so the socks wouldn’t get wet on the Petri dish floor.
There are many passages like this: descriptions devoid of dramatic detail or any apparent relevance to the story. It’s as if the author feels bound to record even the most banal of activities (and this includes urinating), without going to the trouble of making these descriptions meaningful. And perhaps that’s the point. Nothing has meaning, so no one thing is more important than anything else.
But – and there is of course a but: Perkins is too good a writer for there not to be – this deliberate espousing of the banal is countered by scenes in which the quotidian world is suddenly transfigured in moments of near-epiphany. Here is Dorothy farewelling her younger sister Ruth, on what will turn out to be the last time she sees her:
In silence they walked slowly down the side of the hill, abstract red shapes and bronze beasts rising from the first layer of bush, resembling deer or giant birds, not so much modelled as gestured at. Dot thought of the sweat welling on Hank’s skin, in the hollow of his throat. The unseasonal cold ached in her joints and she didn’t mind that Ruth seemed to be passing through the experience too quickly, ignoring the atmosphere, consigning it to recollection, doing the sculptures …
It is at this point, two-thirds of the way into the novel, that the reader really begins to warm to Dorothy. Since she is the main protagonist, caring what happens to her is essential if the novel is to work. On a second reading Dorothy is already established in the reader’s mind so the involvement begins earlier, but for the first-time reader this long slow boil has an enervating effect.
To return to the controversy mentioned at the start of this review, I have to say the impression I am left with after a second reading is that this is not a literary novel but a writerly one. On almost every page I was aware of a writer at work, so much so that it often seemed the minutely described observations belonged not to the character in focus at the time but to the author. What Margaret Atwood has referred to as the moment when the characters take charge of the story is a long time coming in this novel. Some of this is down to the way in which Perkins withholds information, obliging the reader to go back and start again once she has worked out who this character called Andrew is, or what took the Forrest parents back to the States, or whether Evelyn did actually die when she was rushed back to hospital. Information is not the point of this story, observation is. But since it is a story I question whether the reader should have to work quite so hard to join the dots.
Having said all this, I now have to own up to a niggling feeling that The Forrests is going to stay around in my mind whether I like it or not. When I try to find a reason for this, I’m left with a sense that all the things I’ve said hitherto may be missing the point, and that what is going on is so poignant, so unbearably sad, that even while mustering arguments against it – luminous despair does not help me to live – I’m falling under its spell. The comparison with Proust may be relevant after all. The appearance of reality in the accumulation of detail, the closely observed minutiae of life, is just that – appearance. Behind that mask, lives of unbearable loneliness are lived in the anguished knowledge that life is meaningless, and what happens to you, the good luck and the bad, is just that, luck.
F R Leavis would turn in his grave.
Elspeth Sandys is a Wellington writer and reviewer.