Book Review: The Forrests

By Paula Green

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The Forrests by Emily Perkins
Bloomsbury $36.99, out on now

Book cover of The Forrests by Emily Perkins. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of The Forrests by Emily Perkins. Photo / Supplied

Emily Perkins' sumptuous new book, The Forrests, is a novel to savour slowly: line by line, character by character, revelation by revelation. Within a few pages I felt I was in the company of a contemporary Katherine Mansfield or Virginia Woolf.

Why? It is to do with Perkins' attention to the sentence, to the slow mesmeric pace, to the minute details, to the sweet power of analogy and the dialogue that draws you in.

The Forrests bring their family (Evelyn, Dorothy, Ruth and Michael) "from oh my god the hub of the world, New York City, to Westmere, Auckland, New Zealand" to find a better life (amongst other reasons). We enter the story - or I should say overlapping stories - of the Forrests with that of Dorothy at the heart.

We move from childhood to old age though secrets, disappointments, sacrifice, love, heartbreak, commitment and discovery. Yet this is not simply a fascinating saga of human experience or family relations; as much as I love what is told I also love how the story is told.

The sentences shine. Perkins is not afraid of similes, long sentences, short sentences, slang, medical jargon, little rhymes in a line. The sentence variation is a strength - it introduces music, heightens the visual images that grow in your head and adds to the little emotional kicks.

The structure is daring. It is like a photograph album made up of miniature scenes. Each luminous section exists in its own right (like a short-story tasting), but each adds to the next and the one before. You could almost dip into the novel like a photo album, but the pleasure in reading from start to end gives you the moving contours of life.

Perhaps, too, you could take a cue from the title and think of the novel as a forest through which there are many paths - just as there are many paths through memory. Or a movie spliced with jump cuts.

In brief sections, Perkins uses minimal but pertinent detail to summon a time and location so it pulsates with life upon the page. I am thinking, for example, of the wimmin's commune where the pottery is too wonky to stand on the table, the van smells of sandalwood and the cushions are corduroy and patchwork. I was right back in the 70s.

Perkins has faith in the strength of the gap. There is much we don't get told, or much we don't immediately get told, and this means you have to keep fine-tuning the way you read the characters. The gaps between sections become fertile places.

I loved the way Dorothy (Dot) slowly fleshes out with her flaws, biases, strengths and defences. I became very fond of this woman who places motherhood first and her enduring love second, weathering family dysfunction and loneliness. Then there is the enigmatic Daniel who as a young boy found the Forrests a more desirable family to live with than his own. He loses himself in the "forest" of living, but the women keep finding their way back to him.

Near the end, as I hovered beside Dorothy in her hospital bed, I experienced that intense flood of thought and emotion when facing someone who has little time left. Who was this woman? What of all the bits I didn't know? What of the episodes that haunt me about her life?

There was a moment of panic as I kept piecing her together in my mind.

This is one of those rare and precious books that made me want to pick up my pen and write.

* Emily Perkins will appear at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, Aotea Centre, May 11-13.

Paula Green is an Auckland poet and editor of Dear Heart: 150 NZ Love Poems.

- NZ Herald

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