June 27, 2012
The Forrests by Emily Perkins
New Zealand author Emily Perkins’ last book was 2008′s Novel About My Wife, a curious and absorbing novel about a woman with a mysterious past who remains unknowable to her husband, and how motherhood seems to bring about her undoing. On the surface, it was an easy book, accessible, full of familiar references; and yet something so strange was going on under the surface, such darkness, an ambiguity that was frustrating and also thoroughly engaging. It was a novel that didn’t wear its literary-ness on its sleeve, but something underlying seemed to suggest that Emily Perkins was no ordinary author.
And with her latest, The Forrests, that fact is established. The novels starts off slow and it’s hard to find one’s footing in the narrative, mostly because there isn’t a narrative yet. We are treated to scenes from a childhood, from an eccentric family. The Forrests are four children, including two sisters Dorothy and Evelyn, so close that they’re practically twins, and their parents whose lapses in responsibility are painfully obvious to their children. The parents break up, then reconcile, and their children mostly make their own way, rudderless. Dorothy marries young, and Evelyn drifts, and both are irrevocably bound to Daniel, a family friend who is part-lover, part-brother to both of them.
The novel finds its plot in adulthood, in much the way life does. Perkins is particularly adept at showing the peculiar connections of marriage and motherhood, and how these impact the sisters who are living parallel lives. Gradually, the novel’s focus becomes Dorothy only, illustrating the unsustainability of family as an institution, or at least of this family. I found it curious to note that The Forrests contains secondary characters called Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, all of them peripheral and never interacting with one another– the modern family and its connections are fragmented, illusory.
We follow Dorothy through the storm of motherhood, into middle age, to old age, to the point at which “time becomes measurable.” Perkins has not fixed her novel in time with many specific cultural references, and so the story has a contemporary feel from the start, a sense of immediacy. And as Dorothy’s awareness begins to diminish as she ages, we see that the seemingly random scenes at the novel’s beginning were actually the pivotal moments of her life in the grander context, the flashes of light that will remain when everything else is confused and dark.
The Forrests is like The Stone Diaries, but edgier, and structured as the interior of its subject’s mind rather than her scrapbooks, and it’s enormously successful. Rachel Cusk, Virginia Woolf. Vividly human characters, gorgeous writing. It’s full of surprises, twists, turns and moments of illumination, quiet but profound in its brilliance, and devastating to have to finally put down.