Friday, September 14, 2012

Book Review: THE FORRESTS by Emily Perkins

I love big novels about small things. Because no matter how strange the events and circumstances surrounding individuals are, it’s a person’s relationship to those events that imbues them with meaning in the end. I think my predilection for those kinds of small insights in writing explains why I was so totally captivated by Emily Perkins’ latest novel, The Forrests.

Lee and Frank Forrest grew up in wealthy households, but by the time we meet them the money they had counted on has been squandered away. They leave the US with their four children – Michael, Evelyn, Dorothy and Ruth – for an unconventional life in New Zealand. The third-person narrative focuses on the two middle children, Evelyn and Dot, and their attempts to make a life for themselves despite the uncertain, hand-to-mouth existence their parents have provided – a lifestyle that seems to be fine with Frank, but which is increasingly difficult for the children’s mother, Lee. It also focuses on Daniel, a child taken in by the Forrests, whose presence at first anchors the family, and then pulls it apart.

The Forrests live a patched-together life, which Perkins emphasizes in the patched-together chapters of the novel. I’m not usually of a fan of non-linear narrative, but in this case the device gave me real sympathy with the Forrest siblings, whose circumstances were constantly changing because of their parents’ inability to plan for them. I had to figure where I was and what had happened to get me there at the beginning of each chapter, reorienting myself to new circumstances like an often-uprooted child must have to do. At times, I admit, it was slow going, but it kept me focused, trying to understand their world.

To say that The Forrests is beautifully written doesn’t really do it justice. Reading it is like driving a circuitous route through varied terrain, each vista totally gorgeous, but not wholly connected to the last. Perkins’ words spill together, leaving the reader awash in emotion, stretching to reach the plot beneath it:

The mention of his name made Eve want to rip a hunk of grass from the earth. This could not be done, and nothing could be said to her sister. Better to bury Daniel because face it, she’d had no right to him and she’d wanted him for so long and followed him across the world and by anyone’s standards she probably deserved to have him leave her but she could never, never tell Dot. How to know whether the secrecy – really the lying -- came from love, or shame, or the sheer envy of having been the one left out by those two for all that time? They’d never talked about it but she knew, like she knew Michael being a pot fiend when their parents insisted it was just that he was shy. Could she judge whether or not Daniel had been worth it? She was frightened that, if she looked in her heart, she would discover that he was, and would have to face up to what that meant, now he was gone. “Actually, I should get home. I’m on dinner. What should I make?”

I cannot recommend this book highly enough for lovers of contemporary literary fiction. Perkins is inventive and daring with language, describing in extraordinary detail what might have been ordinary, even tawdry lives, if they had not been examined closely. I will definitely be seeking out her previous books.

I read this book – albeit in delayed fashion – as part of TLC Book Tour. I received a galley of the book in return for my honest opinion. Many thanks to Lisa Munley at TLC for shifting around some deadlines to accommodate my unexpectedly difficult schedule this summer. I’m glad to be back blogging, and I’m looking forward to seeing what has been going on while I’ve been away!

For other reviews of this book, check the TLC links here.