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‘The Bone People’ by Keri Hulme ***

Keri Hulme’s only novel, The Bone People, was the winner of the 1985 Booker McConnell Prize.  I have wanted to get my hands on a copy of the book for years, but for one reason or another, have not.  I think I put it off a little as I haven’t had a great deal of luck with enjoying many of the Booker Prize winners which I have read to date.  However, I was still very excited to get to this one, and to be able to read it as part of an online book club which I run.

460635Some of the reviews which I chose to read before immersing myself into the novel piqued my interest further.  The New York Times Book Review comments that the novel, which is ‘set on the harsh South Island beaches of New Zealand, [is] bound in Maori myth and entwined with Christian symbols…  [Hulme] casts her magic on three fiercely unique characters, but reminds us that we, like them, are “nothing more than people”, and that, in a sense, we are all cannibals, compelled to consume the gift of love with demands for perfection.’  The Sunday Times agrees, writing: ‘Seizing on material that might seem outlandish, she transforms it into a fable that’s as persuasive as it’s haunting.  In this novel, New Zealand’s people, its heritage and landscape are conjured up with uncanny poetry and perceptiveness.’

In her short preface to the volume, Hulme writes that the novel ‘began life as a short story called “Simon Peter’s Shell”‘.  She goes on to recount the ‘oddities’ which resound in her novel, with regard to both its editing process and her original choices of vocabulary: ‘… I think the shape of words brings a response from the reader – a tiny, subconscious, unacknowledged but definite response.’  I love it when authors employ wordplay, and particularly enjoyed the way in which Hulme evoked the landscape around her characters.  Her descriptions vividly captured the natural world; for instance, ‘Intermittent wheeping flutes from oystercatchers’, and ‘the gathering boil of the surf below.’

The Bone People begins in a tower by the New Zealand sea, which is inhabited by a part-Maori, part-European woman named Kerewin Holmes.  She is ‘an artist estranged from her art, a woman in exile from her family.’ Hulme writes of Kerewin’s quest to build herself the tower in which she lives: ‘All through the summer sun she laboured, alone with the paid, bemused, professional help.  The dust obscured and flayed, thirst parched, and tempers frayed, but the Tower grew.  A concrete skeleton, wooden ribs and girdle, skin of stone, grey and slateblue and heavy honey-coloured.  Until late one February it stood, gaunt and strange and embattled, built on an almost island in the shallows of an inlet, tall in Taiaroa.’

Kerewin is ‘self-fulfilling’, and invites nobody to visit her, ‘for what would they know of the secrets that crept and chilled and chuckled in the marrow of her bones?’  Although keeping herself to herself, and living a relatively isolated life, at the beginning of the novel she is ‘disrupted by a speechless, mercurial boy named Simon who tries to steal from her and then repays her with his most precious possession.’  Against her will, she ‘succumbs to his feral charm’, along with that of Joe, his Maori foster father.  The novel which Hulme has created, with an ‘unorthodox trinity’ of characters, is described as ‘at once a mystery, a love story, and an ambitious exploration of the zone where Maori and European New Zealand meet.’

When Kerewin first meets Simon, who has broken into her tower, she thinks him ‘Nasty.  Gnomish.’  She goes on to describe him in the following, almost disparaging, manner: ‘There isn’t much above a yard of it standing there, a foot out of range of her furthermost reach.  Small and thin, with an extraordinary face, highboned and hollowcheeked, fleet and pointed chin, and a sharp sharp nose.  Nothing else is visible under an obscuration of silverblond hair, except the mouth, and it’s set in an uncommonly stubborn line.’  The interactions of the two were interesting, as Simon is mute, and alternative methods of communication have to be relied upon.

From the first, I found Hulme’s prose beguiling.  In her deliberately ambiguous prologue, she writes: ‘They were nothing more than people, by themselves.  Even paired, any pairing, they would have been nothing more than people by themselves.  But all together, they have become the heart and muscles and mind of something perilous and new, something strange and growing and great.’  There is a mysterious quality to the book, and this weaves itself through the novel.

Hulme’s writing, and the way she goes about it, is experimental, but not in a way which makes it inaccessible. An omniscient narrative form runs alongside Kerewin’s thoughts, which come across in a stream-of-consciousness style.  This works well on the whole, but it does tend to jump around somewhat, and is a little difficult to get used to at first.  Style-wise, I do not actually believe that I’ve read anything at all similar to The Bone People, and I am a fan of experimental writing.

I did not warm to any of the protagonists.  I do not feel that doing so was at all the point of the novel, however.  Hulme seems to set out to demonstrate how flawed the human race is, and how we can be led so easily by others.  She shows, in a series of highly violent, traumatic, and difficult to read scenes, just how cruel we can be, and how irredeemably we can hurt others.

The Bone People is a novel which feels very contemporary.  I loved the way in which Hulme has used Maori terms throughout; of course, this is fitting to the setting of the story and its characters.  A glossary at the back of the novel gives English translations, although many are self-explanatory given the context in which they are used.  So much attention has been paid to each of the senses throughout the novel, and this added depth to Hulme’s descriptions and depictions.  There is a real shape and movement to Hulme’s prose, and I found the approach which she took in The Bone People a fascinating and admirable one.

Whilst I admired Hulme’s writing style, and found her prose rich and textured, I cannot sadly say that this is a novel which I enjoyed reading.  This is particularly true when the relentless violence begins to saturate everything else.  The Bone People feels like an important book, particularly from a cultural standpoint, but I found it difficult to read on the whole.  Overall, I found the novel unusual, harrowing, strange, and incredibly intense.

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Fairlight Moderns: Emma Timpany and Sophie van Llewyn

I published reviews of three of the Fairlight Moderns novellas recently, and having now read the last two in the series of five, thought that I would post reviews of these too.

Travelling in the Dark by Emma Timpany **** 9781912054480
In Travelling in the Dark, Emma Timpany’s protagonist, Sarah, is travelling back to her native New Zealand from her home in England, accompanied by her young son.  Her husband has recently left her, and she is making the journey in order to show her son where she spent her own childhood, and to meet an old friend with whom she has a lot of history.

Travelling in the Dark begins in such a vivid manner, in prose which feels at once simplistic and engaging: ‘Sarah is on an aeroplane, crossing the night sky.  Her hands are folded in her lap.  Outside the window there is darkness.  She could slide the small, white window blind down, close out the night, but somehow she cannot bring herself to make this one small act.  The sense that she sometimes gets, that she must keep watching or she’ll miss something of importance, is intense, though she cannot see anything beyond the veil of ice crystals.  No stars, no satellites.  No planets.  No moon.  No radiant light from some far city.’  As one can tell from this snippet, Timpany’s descriptions are often quite lovely, particularly when she gives her attention to the natural world.

Every other chapter, which is interspersed between details of Sarah’s present day journey, are vignettes set during her childhood.  Such a sense of place and character can be found throughout Travelling in the Dark, and I so enjoyed Timpany’s writing that I am now waiting eagerly for her next publication.
Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn ****
9781912054305Bottled Goods is Sophie van Llewyn’s first piece of ‘long fiction’.  This novella begins in the Communist Romania of the 1960s, where, in the first scene, protagonist Alina is taken on a roadtrip with her cousins and Aunt Theresa.  Short chapters ensue, some of which are told using the voice of Alina, and others which use an omniscient narrator.  A few chapters consist largely of lists.

From the outset, Bottled Goods is vivid in its descriptions, and culturally and historically fascinating.  Van Llewyn does incredibly well to put across the terror and strength of the regime in such a succinct yet harrowing manner.  She demonstrates how quickly things escalated in the regime, and how far-reaching its effect was upon every Romanian citizen.  The use of magical realism works very well too, particularly given the point at which it is introduced; it is used in quite a serious way, so does not tend to lighten the tone of the novella at all, but it does make one think.  Van Llewyn’s blending of realism with the element of magical realism is rather inventive, and certainly makes for a strange, quirky, and memorable novella.

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Books Set in New Zealand

Reading Rose Tremain’s wonderful The Colour has made me realise quite how few books I have read which are set in New Zealand.  This is clearly an oversight on my part; New Zealand has always been very high on my travel list, and I am fascinated by the culture there.  Katherine Mansfield, born in Wellington, is one of my favourite all-time authors, and I also very much enjoy the work of Janet Frame, Lloyd Jones, and Eleanor Catton.  I clearly need more works set in New Zealand on my to-read pile, and thus have made a list of tomes which I am very much looking forward to picking up in the next year or so.

5271891. Green Dolphin Street by Elizabeth Goudge (I’m hoping to read this for the 1944 Club in October)
A haunting love story set in the Channel Islands and New Zealand in the 19th century.  William, whose hypnotic, masculine presence made two women adore him… of Marianne, moody, passionate, brilliant, by whom William was both fascinated and repelled… of Marguerite, Marianne’s beautiful sister whom William wanted with all his heart.  They had both loved him for years. Now they were waiting for him to return from his journeys and claim his bride.

 

2. Blindsight by Maurice Gee
Alice Ferry lives in Wellington, and keeps an eye on her brother, though he doesn’t know it. Alice as narrator begins telling us the story from their childhood, but there are things she’s hiding.  When a young man shows up on her doorstep, claiming to be her brother Gordon’s grandson, things get complicated.

 

3. The Bone People by Keri Hulme 460635
In a tower on the New Zealand sea lives Kerewin Holmes, part Maori, part European, an artist estranged from her art, a woman in exile from her family. One night her solitude is disrupted by a visitor—a speechless, mercurial boy named Simon, who tries to steal from her and then repays her with his most precious possession. As Kerewin succumbs to Simon’s feral charm, she also falls under the spell of his Maori foster father Joe, who rescued the boy from a shipwreck and now treats him with an unsettling mixture of tenderness and brutality. Out of this unorthodox trinity Keri Hulme has created what is at once a mystery, a love story, and an ambitious exploration of the zone where Maori and European New Zealand meet, clash, and sometimes merge. Winner of both a Booker Prize and Pegasus Prize for Literature, The Bone People is a work of unfettered wordplay and mesmerizing emotional complexity.

 

4. An Angel at My Table: An Autobiography by Janet Frame
This autobiography traces Janet Frame’s childhood in a poor but intellectually intense family, life as a student, years of incarceration in mental hospitals and eventual entry into the saving world of writers.

 

237252755. The Settling Earth by Rebecca Burns
Marriage transplants Sarah thousands of miles from home; a failed love affair forces Phoebe to make drastic choices in a new environment; a sudden, shocking discovery brings Mrs Ellis to reconsider her life as an emigrant — The Settling Earth is a collection of ten, interlinked stories, focusing on the British settler experience in colonial New Zealand, and the settlers’ attempts to make sense of life in a strange new land.  Sacrifices, conflict, a growing love for the landscape, a recognition of the succour offered by New Zealand to Maori and settler communities — these are themes explored in the book. The final story in the collection, written by Shelly Davies of the Ngātiwai tribe, adds a Maori perspective to the experience of British settlement in their land.

 

6. The Piano by Jane Campion
In the award-winning film The Piano, writer/director Jane Campion created a story so original and powerful it fascinated millions of moviegoers. This novel stands independent of the film, exploring the mysteries of Ada’s muteness, the secret of her daughter’s conception, the reason for her strange marriage and the past lives of Baines and Stewart.

 

7. A Respectable Girl by Fleur Beale 3768628
It is 1859 in the raw township of New Plymouth where Hannah Carstairs walks between two worlds. She finds that both her worlds are changing. First there are the disturbing hints about her dead mother’s past. Then, the tensions between the Maori tribes and the settlers boil over into war.

 

8. A Land of Two Halves by Joe Bennett
After 10 years in New Zealand, Joe Bennett asked himself what on earth he was doing there. Other than his dogs, what was it about these two small islands on the edge of the world that had kept him—an otherwise restless traveller—for really much longer than they seemed to deserve? Bennett thought he’d better pack his bag and find out. Hitching around both the intriguingly named North and South Islands, with an eye for oddity and a taste for conversation, Bennett began to remind himself of the reasons New Zealand is quietly seducing the rest of the world.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which are your favourite works set in, or about, New Zealand?

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Around the World in 80 Books: My Top Ten

I officially completed my Around the World in 80 Books challenge back in April, having started on the first of January this year.  The project has been both delightful and enlightening, and I have so enjoyed immersing myself in so many portrayals of countries and their very diverse cultures.  Whilst I have no plans to repeat the challenge in coming years (particularly as I found it rather difficult to find a single tome which I was interested in from several of my previously chosen countries), I have found the process to be a wonderful one.

I chose to travel to one continent at a time, beginning with my home country, and sweeping through each of them in turn.  If you wish to see a full itinerary of this year’s ‘travels’, then please click here.

I thought that it would be a nice idea to gather together my favourite books which I encountered during my challenge.  They are in no particular order, but I thoroughly enjoyed each and every one of them, and highly recommend them.  Included alongside them are snippets of my reviews.

 

1. Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart (France)
I really enjoy Mary Stewart’s fiction; all of her books are markedly different, despite sharing similarities in terms of traits and characterisation. As ever, Stewart’s real strengths here come with setting the scene, and building her protagonists. Nine Coaches Waiting, which takes place just a few miles away from the Swiss border, has a wonderfully Gothic feel to it.

2. The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (Norway) cover-jpg-rendition-460-707
Much of Vesaas’ writing is given over to the landscape within the more pivotal moments of The Ice Palace. His descriptions of ice and snow are varied, and startlingly beautiful. When she reaches the ice palace, he writes, for instance, ‘Unn looked down into an enchanting world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes. Soft curves and confused tracery. All of it was ice, and the water spurted between, building it up continually. Branches of the waterfall had been diverted and rushed into new channels, creating new forms. Everything shone.’

3. Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin (South Korea)
So-nyo’s complex character is pieced together fragment by fragment. This technique gives a real depth to her, and is a very revealing and effective manner in which to tell such a story. So-nyo’s family begin to realise just how important she is to them, and the many ways they have taken advantage of her, or taken her for granted over the years. Their own mistakes, both collective and individual, glare out at them: ‘You don’t understand why it took you so long to realise something so obvious. To you, Mother was always Mother. It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old. Mother was Mother. She was born as Mother. Until you saw her running to your uncle like that, it hadn’t dawned on you that she was a human being who harboured the exact same feeling you had for your own brothers, and this realisation led to the awareness that she, too, had had a childhood. From then on, you sometimes thought of Mother as a child, as a girl, as a young woman, as a newly-wed, as a mother who had just given birth to you.’

97818702068084. Dew on the Grass by Eiluned Lewis (Wales)
Movement, particularly with regard to the younger characters, has been captured beautifully: ‘Released at length from the spell of Louise’s eye and the cool, leafshadowed nursery, they danced out on the lawn, shouting, hopping with excitement, ready for something adventurous, scarcely able to contain their glee.’ The natural world of Lewis’ novel has been romanticised in the gentlest and loveliest of manners; it never feels overdone or repetitive, and is largely filled with purity and charm.

5. The Colour by Rose Tremain (New Zealand)
‘Tremain gives a marked consideration to colour in her novel from its very beginning.  She writes: ‘It was their first winter.  The earth under their boots was grey.  The yellow tussock-grass was salty with hail.  In the violet clouds of afternoon lay the promise of a great winding-sheet of snow.’  I was struck by Tremain’s writing immediately.  She has such a gift for seamlessly blending her vivid descriptions with her characters, and the actions which they take.  There is a timelessness to Tremain’s prose, despite the effective rooting of her novel in a very particular period and setting.  She uses her chosen framework in order to explore many different themes relating to expatriation, nature, and human nature, particularly with regard to the ways in which changing conditions alter the relationships between husband and wife, and son and mother.’

6. Guiltless by Viveca Sten (Sweden)
I had not read the first or second novels in the series, but that did not seem to matter at all. I found that it worked very well indeed as a standalone novel. Guiltless takes part on a small island in the Swedish archipelago named Sandhamn, and is engaging from its very first page. Throughout, the novel is really well plotted and structured, and its translation is fluid. The sense of place and characters are well built, and I found Guiltless overall to be so easy to read, and so absorbing.

7. The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Croatia) 17237713
From the outset, the male narrative voice which Forna has crafted is engaging, and I was immediately pulled in. There is such a sense of place here, and it has definitely made me long to go back to Croatia. Another real strength of The Hired Man is that quite a lot is left unsaid at times; these careful omissions make the story even more powerful.

8. Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra (Chile)
Ways of Going Home uses a structure of very short, and often quite poignant, vignettes. These are made up at first of retrospective memories and memorials from the narrator’s childhood, and then from his adulthood. This structure works wonderfully; I often find that books made up of vignettes build a wonderful story, allowing us to learn about the characters, as well as the conditions under which they live, piece by piece. Zambra’s writing style is gripping from the very first page; it begins in the following manner: ‘Once, I got lost. I was six or seven. I got distracted, and all of a sudden I couldn’t see my parents anymore. I was scared, but I immediately found the way home and got there before they did. They kept looking for me, desperate, but I thought they were lost. That I knew how to get home and they didn’t.’

97800071729179. Eight Months on Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantel (Saudi Arabia)
Well written, as Mantel’s work always is, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is culturally fascinating. It gives one a feeling for the city of Jeddah, where Frances and Andrew settle, immediately, as well as Frances’ position within it. Her life soon feels very claustrophobic, largely unable, as she is, to leave the block of flats in which the couple live; this is due to the incredibly subservient position of women in the male-dominated society, which leaves her – a trained cartographer – unable to work, as well as the stifling heat which grips the city for most of the year. Frances has been made almost a prisoner in her own home, and has to rely on the friendship of the other women in the building to wile away those long, hot hours in which Andrew is working.

10. Two Under the Indian Sun by Jon and Rumer Godden (India)
I have read quite a few of Rumer Godden’s books, many of which have been reissued by Virago in the last few years, but I have never come across anything of Jon’s before. I loved the idea of a collaborative memoir, particularly one which focuses almost exclusively upon their childhood, which was largely spent in India. Two Under the Indian Sun covers several years, in which the girls were taken back to their parents in East Bengal, now a part of Pakistan, after the outbreak of the First World War.

 

Have you taken part in this project before?  If not, have you been inspired to?  Which are your favourite reads from around the world?

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‘The Colour’ by Rose Tremain *****

I chose Rose Tremain’s The Colour for the penultimate stop on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  Set in New Zealand, The Colour is the first of Tremain’s novels which I have read; before this, I had only encountered one of her short story collections.  The Daily Telegraph calls her ‘one of the finest writers in English’, and this sentiment seems to be echoed by many reviewers.

9780099425151The central characters in The Colour are married couple Joseph and Harriet Blackstone.  They choose to migrate from Norfolk to New Zealand in 1864, along with Joseph’s mother, Lilian, ‘in search of new beginnings and prosperity’.  Soon after they construct their house, Joseph finds small pieces of gold in the local creek, and is ‘seized by a rapturous obsession with the voluptuous riches awaiting him deep in the earth’.  He then sets off alone, with the destination of New Zealand’s Southern Alps on his mind; there are a series of newly-discovered goldfields there, and he joins an enormous migration of men in order to try and make his fortune.  The blurb declares the novel ‘by turns both moving and terrifying’, and describes it as being ‘about a quest for the impossible, an attempt to mine the complexities of love and explore the sacrifices to be made in the pursuit of happiness.’

Tremain gives a marked consideration to colour in her novel from its very beginning.  She writes: ‘It was their first winter.  The earth under their boots was grey.  The yellow tussock-grass was salty with hail.  In the violet clouds of afternoon lay the promise of a great winding-sheet of snow.’  I was struck by Tremain’s writing immediately.  She has such a gift for seamlessly blending her vivid descriptions with her characters, and the actions which they take.  There is a timelessness to Tremain’s prose, despite the effective rooting of her novel in a very particular period and setting.  She uses her chosen framework in order to explore many different themes relating to expatriation, nature, and human nature, particularly with regard to the ways in which changing conditions alter the relationships between husband and wife, and son and mother.

It feels as though the author is intimately acquainted with her characters, and their every wish and whim.  When describing Joseph in the novel’s early stages, for instance, Tremain writes: ‘He turned away from his mother and looked admiringly at this new wife of his, kneeling by the reluctant fire.  And he felt his heart suddenly fill to the very core with gratitude and affection…  Joseph wanted to cross the room and put his arms around Harriet and gather her hair into a knot in his hand.  He wanted to lay his head on her shoulder and tell her the one thing that he would never be able to admit to her – that she had saved his life.’  Harriet, too, feels fully formed, particularly given her slightly unusual and non-conformist character: ‘But she was a woman who longed for the unfamiliar and the strange…  She wanted to see her own hand in everything.  No matter if it took a long time.  No matter if her skin was burned in the summer heat.  No matter if she had to learn each new task like a child.  She had been a governess for twelve years.  Now, she had travelled an ocean and stood in a new place, but she wanted to go still further, into a wilderness.’

The Colour feels ultimately realistic from its beginning.  It is filled with fraught discussions, and the darkness and loneliness which such a new life can bring with it.  The cultural information is rich, and, particularly along with Tremain’s descriptions, paints a wonderful and tangible picture.  I did find the ending slightly problematic, but it was still very enjoyable nevertheless, and I certainly struggled to put it down.  Immersive and beautifully executed, The Colour is a believable and very human novel, which I highly recommend.  I cannot wait to read more books by Tremain.

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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, 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, gaining his own space and being away from his family.

Whilst told in a relatively 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 runs 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.

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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.

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