One From the Archive: ‘The Forrests’ by Emily Perkins **

First published in September 2012.

The Forrests is Emily Perkins’ fourth novel. It opens with the Forrest family, with particular focus placed upon the middle daughter, Dorothy. The Forrest family – mother and father Lee and Frank, son Michael and three daughters, Evelyn, Dorothy and Ruthie – have just moved from ‘oh my god the hub of the world’ New York to quiet Auckland, New Zealand.

The novel begins in the late 1960s and spans the entire timescale of Dorothy’s life, from her seven year old self, through to motherhood and the trials of adult life. The Forrests’ family dynamic seems rather unsettled from the start, when Dorothy and Evelyn, not yet teenagers, ‘agreed that they hated their father’. When the family have finally gathered enough money to send their said father back to New York for reasons unbeknown to the reader, the remaining Forrests move to a ‘wimmin’s commune’. Here, a whole host of additional characters are met, some of them certainly more intriguing than others. Whilst at the commune, the girls help to weed the garden during the day and, at night they perfect ‘playing gin rummy and trying to be invisible’.

Fissures, small at the outset, begin to shatter the family dynamic. This is apparent from many interwoven elements which contribute to the story, from the family owing money to debt collectors to Michael’s apparent need to move out, yearning to gain his own space and be away from his family.

Whilst told in a relatively standard chronological order, The Forrests skips forward in time by several years from one chapter to the next. The reader is given no indication that the dates have changed, and the only clues that this is so can be found with regard to the suddenly altered ages of the children. Their story is consequently difficult to follow at times.

Perkins’ descriptions are vivid from the outset – cardboard smelt ‘sandy and soft’ and the path which ran alongside the Forrests’ house was ‘bulged and splintered with tree roots’. The natural world in the book, the wide open spaces which surround the children, are treated almost as a character in themselves. Much existential matter is given humanistic properties – ‘time breathed around him’, for example – a technique which works incredibly well. Perkins’ prose has been very well considered; indeed, it is often better than the story which unfolds around it.

A third person perspective has been used throughout, which distances the reader both from the characters and the story. It is difficult to build up sympathy for the family, as we never really get to know them well enough to do so. Dorothy’s entire life unfolds as the novel progresses, but the feeling of detachment towards her is still ever present. A first person narrative voice would have made this novel a wonderful one, but something about the omniscient third person perspective which Perkins has used just does not work.

The tenses are not always consistent, and the book does feel a little clumsy in consequence. The story is confusing at times, merely due to the sheer number of characters which have been introduced almost simultaneously. It is also rather difficult to deduce who is speaking in conversations which involve more than three characters, and such dialogue exchanges often have to be read more than once to be made sense of.

On the whole, far too many characters have been introduced throughout The Forrests, and there is no clear direction in mind. The story meanders without purpose in places, and although the writing is a definite strength, the characters and our perceptions of them often seem weak and underdeveloped. It feels as though Perkins has endeavoured to be far too ambitious and could not quite manage to make all of her ideas come to fruition in the end.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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