The Forrests

‘The test of literature is, I suppose, whether we ourselves live more intensely for the reading of it.’

This quote by Elizabeth Drew is one of my favourites, and The Forrests by Emily Perkins is a novel that brilliantly exemplifies it.  It’s a story that focuses on ordinary, everyday life with the sort of piercing lucidity of language that enriches every perception. I am a sucker for family stories, and this is one of the more unusual and intriguing that I’ve read. We first meet the Forrests when their children are small. Lee and Frank are disconnected parents, Frank attempting to kick-start his acting career in America, and Lee the sort of parent who dumps the kids in her hippy commune in Auckland to wait the attempt out. Unsupervised, the children run wild, Michael succumbing to the seduction of his mother’s friend, Evelyn and Dorothy and little Ruth hunting for frogs and playing rounders, and Daniel, the neighbours’ son who seems to have attached himself surreptitiously to the family, shoplifting at the local store. Whatever will become of these children as they grow up, the reader wonders? And the rest of the novel, in a series of fascinating and gorgeously written vignettes, goes on to tell us.

The narrative is told mainly from the point of view of Dorothy, whose life we follow from these early childhood days until her death. Dorothy loves Daniel, always has and always will, but Daniel is a cool customer, a drifter and a druggie, a man destined to travel without ever settling down. And what Dorothy wants above all else is her own family. So she marries Andrew, a clear second best, but a ‘provider’ who is content to help produce her own set of four children. Unbeknownst to her, Evelyn is also in love with Daniel, and the sisters’ relationship will be a tight tangle of love and secrets and little rivalries. Michael and Ruth are satellite siblings, people who choose very different trajectories and who will dip in and out of their lives as the years pass. So this book has an episodic structure rather than a traditional plot, but as a device for exploring the lifespan of a family it’s perfect. I couldn’t wait to see what stage they had reached next, and what would happen to them in it. In some ways there are no surprises; all of life is here, from marriages and births, accidents and deaths, tragedies and comedies, moments of horror and moments of grace, the redundancy of children leaving home and the indignities of old age. But everything is fresh and unexpected in its way, filtered through the perceptions of the characters as they tackle what fate throws in their path.

It’s the writing that really makes this novel something special. It’s punchy and vivid and completely unpretentious. One wet day, Dorothy goes to collect her family from school with a complete stranger in tow: ‘Sam produced an umbrella from his plastic bag and held it over them all, pushing the buggy with his other hand as they made their way, centurions in turtle formation, through the security gate and along the street.’ When Evelyn is working as a chalet girl, ‘Wind shook over the surface of the ski field like a sheet being thrown on a bed and there was a high, glassy ringing that might have been life wires or the wind running over the snow.’ There are beautiful descriptions of ‘a dog-eared paperback on the floor, in German, its pages oxidised yellow, the cover dotted with brown like a liver-spotted hand.’ And sharp observations: ‘Adulthood was like this – your voice calm, your face normal, while inside white turmoil squirted, your heart still seven, or twelve, or fifteen.’ There is an admirable firmness of purpose to this story, in its desire to tell us about such recognisable things with such glorious limpidity. This is the power of the literary, I think, its ability to give us what we thought we knew with a fresh, brimming intensity.

The Forrests is a very simple book in some ways – a family story with no particular message, no clever theme or twist. But it is authentic and true and extremely poignant, delivering the reader into a world so real and evocative that you are right there with the characters, sharing their pleasures and their pains. I loved it.

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25 thoughts on “The Forrests

  1. Not a book I have heard of before but it sounds worth exploring, thanks. Sometimes the best stories are when the author doesn’t try too hard to make a mystery or a great romance out of ordinry life.
    As for the Elisabeth Drew quote, I wish I had started collecting literature quotations when I was young. I wonder if I am too old to start now? If I didn’t have so many blogs I’d start a new one just for literary quotes.

    • Ooh once a librarian, I am a huge fan of literary quotes and wish I’d kept more in a safe place. Only I have read so many books and noted so many wonderful quotations that the collection would have grown completely out of hand. Still there’s no time like the present for beginning something new. And I completely agree that it’s the books that don’t try to hard that sometimes come up with incredible storytelling.

    • Claire – that must have something to do with the cover of the book, which has a very wild, outside feel to it, with children running through what looks like long grass. I can thoroughly recommend the novel, though, and I’d like to read more Emily Perkins, too.

  2. I have another of her novels which does sound equally good. I’m really lookiking forward to read ing it but would love to ty this onr right away as well.
    I like family stories tto. If they are told in an unusual way, all the better.
    I like that quote by Elizabeth Drew.

    • I had no idea she’d written more novels than this one. Hmm, how intriguing, will have to try to hunt others down. I loved this story and think you would definitely like it, too. It has all the elements that I think appeal to you – would love to know your thoughts!

  3. Sounds like another great read, with a great review from you. I think this is one of the new Bloomsbury Circus titles. I shall have to look out for it – don’t think it’s out quite yet. I think what you say is exactly right – illuminating reality by presenting it to the reader with a richesness of perception and language, making us notice what we often miss right under our noses.Now please can we have some reviews of books I won’t want to read, or donate to my charity – BDB (Bookboxed’s Desired Books)!

    • Oh I love that charity – you should register it! You are quite right, too, that this is a Bloomsbury Circus title and will be out shortly (though not right now). I find it hard to squeeze the information bits into reviews! I’d love to know what you think of it, though, if it finds its way to your library and hence to your home. Let me know if you read it, okay?

  4. I very much like stories of ordinary life where not much happens really except the daily business of living. When someone can come along and do something new to that sort of story then it sounds very masterful indeed. I’ve added it to my wishlist, though it isn’t out here in the US until August! I’m going to have to take a closer look at Bloomsbury Circle!

    • Danielle, I confess I love books in which not a lot happens, except ordinary life. And it’s even better if the perspective is insightful and entertaining. I’d love to know what you think of this one if you get a chance to read it later in the summer!

    • The writing is wonderful. I often don’t quote enough from books in my reviews, but this one I knew I just had to. The cover’s lovely in reality as the name is a brilliant scintillating green. Very attractive!

  5. Lovely post, and I’m glad that I came away from the event we attended with a copy! It was Alexandra Pringle’s mention of Woolf which did it for me, and now you have made this sound all the more delicious. But when oh when will I get around to reading it…

    • Oh I know! Isn’t it hard to find time for all the books one wants to read! I would be really intrigued to find out what you think of something like this, though. I didn’t find it all that Woolf-y-ish, but then again, other readers might. But I’m still intrigued to see if we can find a contemporary novel that you really like. :)

  6. Oh, fun, here is an author I’ve never heard of and she sounds wonderful. I’m going to go look this up right now and answer my own question, but when was this published? Something about the cover makes it look a little dated…but your description makes me think it is more contemporary. Either way, I’m going to read it.

    • Michelle, I would love to know what you think of this. I feel sure it is up your street, given the language is so wonderful. It’s actually a contemporary novel and out in June (I think), so I am in fact ahead of publication here. I happen to have two copies, so perhaps I could drop one in the post to you?

      • Oh that is wonderful of you, thank you – I would really love to read it. Let me know if you’d like a book in return… something French, maybe harder to find in England?

  7. Interesting! This book sounds appealing; I like the idea of a novel that feels so real I’ll forget I’m sitting on my own couch. As someone who doesn’t care a whole lot about plot, the book’s structure sounds just fine to me.

    • Rebecca, yes, I can see you enjoying this one. It’s very intelligent, darkish in places, and really beautifully written. The episodic format would suit you right down to the ground. I’d love to know what you make of it.

    • It really is beautifully written, Lilian, and very perceptive about family life. I’d love to know what you think of it, if you get a chance to read it.

  8. The imagery in the quotes that you’ve shared is just lovely; I’ve added this one to my list. It reminds me a little of Anne Enright’s writing, in the sense that you could easily miss a brilliant bit because it’s so nicely nested into a relatively ordinary sentence, but there it is, just stunning all the same.

  9. Pingback: Best Books of 2012 | Tales from the Reading Room

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