‘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.