The Forrests – Emily Perkins

What I love about reading books you know nothing about is that they can occasionally make you learn something about the reader that you are. I have always thought I have rather eclectic reading tastes with a slight leaning towards ‘literary fiction’ (if I was forced to surmise it that is how I would put it) yet I have recently read a book that I think was too literary for me. It is the second release from new publishing imprint Bloomsbury Circus, who aim to be ‘unashamedly literary’, which is something which excited me, however I think ‘The Forrests’ by Emily Perkins might be one of those novels that is so literary that while its lovely to read in a way, it completely goes over your head. Well it did for me a little sadly.

Bloomsbury Circus, trade paperback, 2012, fiction, 340 pages, sent by the We Love This Book for review

‘The Forrests’ is a clever mixture of family saga and the story of the life of Dorothy Forrest. It’s also a book which seems to celebrate the ordinary and everyday in life, there’s no major story arch, just the snap shot stories of a woman’s life.

As we follow her from her childhood, and the slightly dysfunctional family that she comes from, we are drawn into her life through snapshots. Yet interestingly Dorothy isn’t the omnipresent narrator or even the main protagonist that you might assume, that role often passes onto other characters. These are mainly her siblings like Eve, some who don’t really appear in the book themselves, or like Daniel a boy who her mother ‘took in’. We often learn more about Dorothy when she is described by others or appears in everyone else’s consciousness. It’s one of those books which rely on what is ‘unsaid’ about people and their actions leaving the reader to do a lot of the work.

I am not averse to making an effort with a novel at all, actually sometimes the books where the author allows the reader a freedom to move within the story and almost create some sort of collaboration between writer and reader can be my favourites. You feel trusted. However, my main issue with ‘The Forrests’ is that there was almost too much effort to work out just what the heck was going on. Paragraphs and sections of the novel can shift viewpoint without you realising who is then talking. You also have small situation set pieces which, as the book is so much ‘a celebration of a normal life’ if you will, seems to be in the book for no reason, they are just another event in Dorothy, Eve’s or Daniel’s life. Again some people will adore this, I found myself oddly frustrated and really trying to find out where the plot was, and I am often saying I can really enjoy a book that is has no plot but is simply observations of peoples/characters lives.

Here’s an example of where the writing it utterly beautiful, yet what is going on is rather confusing and, if I am honest, has no integral part to the story…

“The woman leaned down to examine his collar. ‘Where did you find him?’  
 ‘He’s my dad’s.’ She pointed down the road in the direction the woman came from. ‘I don’t know his name.’  
 ‘Blackie?’ The woman was speaking to the dog. ‘Blackie?’  
 The dog barked again, loud over the running car engine.  
 ‘It’s acting like it can talk,’ Evelyn said. ‘Like you’re having a conversation.’  
 The woman laughed.  
 ‘Is he yours? Evelyn asked. ‘Blackie?’
 ‘Yes. He’s grown a bit.’  
 Exhaust fumes coloured the air. The light of early morning had found its way onto everything now, on the dogs conker-coloured eyes and the woman’s sleep deprived face, in the spaces beneath the tree trunks and over the pile of grey stones Evelyn had gathered.  
 Evelyn dug at the stones with her foot, sending one skittering over to the woman. ‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘My dad’s really going to miss him.’”

The writing is utterly beautiful, yet sometimes Perkins so wants to fill the book with words – which some people will love – the sentences can become never-ending. The style of the novel and it’s drifting nature make it seem dreamlike, yet also, for me personally, meant I was sometimes unsure who in the Forrest family I was following and slightly unable to connect with any one character, especially Dot who the novel focuses on in particular from a midway point, yet she isn’t developed enough at the start. I felt like I knew everyone else and what they thought about her, rather than me actually having connected with her in any way.

I liked ‘The Forrests’ rather a lot in parts, I also felt equally frustrated by it. It’s left me feeling rather like I am sitting on the fence about a book, which doesn’t happen to me very often. I admired it greatly for its prose and style, even if I never quite fully connected with it.. Some people will love this book because the fact it is so dreamy and meandering, yet for the very same reason I can imagine some people might just loathe it. I guess it depends on how literary you like your novels. Odd analogy warning; but it reminds me of when I drank Cristal champagne, I knew it was special and refined and of exceptional quality, I just wasn’t sure it was for me. One thing is for certain though, Emily Perkins can certainly write and its good that Bloomsbury Circus are trying to find authors who have missed out on some of the success they most likely deserve. Plus I could be in the small minority with this book as there is already some buzz that this could win this year’s Booker prize. Who knows?

Has anyone else read this and if so what did you think? I have seen reviews from all extremes but would love to chat about it. Do you have any books that you have tried and found almost too literary for you? How did you combat that? Did you give up or persevere trying to appreciate how good the writing was?

A shortened version of this review appeared in We Love This Book.

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12 Comments

Filed under Bloomsbury Circus, Emily Perkins, Review

12 responses to “The Forrests – Emily Perkins

  1. David

    This really does seem to be a book that will polarise opinion – I think I probably loved it for all the reasons you didn’t get on with it, Simon. Admittedly it took a while to get into: that almost filmic opening with the home movie and the kids running out into the street really grabbed me, but then the novel jumps forward years at a time and throws you right into the middle of new situations where you feel like you’re still trying to find your bearings whilst the characters’ lives carry on without you. But around 50 or so pages in I found this book suddenly ‘clicked’ for me and from that point on it could almost do no wrong. Some people will hate it for not having a plot, but of course real life doesn’t have a plot, it isn’t a soap opera. You can impose a narrative on events after the fact, but that is about all – and that is what this book celebrates: the everyday, the quotidian. Tellingly, although this book is set primarily in New Zealand (with a couple of trips to LA and Canada) it doesn’t have much of a sense of place, and perhaps that is because the Forrests could be any of us, living anywhere.
    I think the phrase you’ve used in the review, “snapshots”, is perfect – reading this book to me felt like being shown someone’s family photograph album, where each picture has a story connected to the events it portrays (some major life-changing moments, others smaller and more mundane) but you don’t necessarily have the narrative glue that holds them together. I loved that about it, though I can imagine how some readers would find it off-putting.
    I’d actually love to see this on the Booker longlist. As to whether it’s a potential winner, who knows? For me there are three or four books I’d put ahead of it so far.

    • Thats really interesting David. It seems that you clicked with the book at the point that I started to ‘unclick’ (maybe I mean disengage) with the book. I liked the fact that it was dreamy but at the same time it, for me, was too dreamy.

      We will have to wait (only a month or so) to see what the Man Bookers decisions are this year.

  2. gaskella

    I’ve picked this book up twice now, and put it down again thinking I’d wait for the paperback, but I definitely think I’d like to read it, so will probably pick it up a third time – and we’ll see whether I put down again!

  3. i recently received a newsletter with your name in in. it was from We Love This Book, of course. i must say i’m rather interested in this book, and i love how you wrote your review. both editions, really. you know your opinion is personal (some people don’t, they really don’t!).

  4. jo

    the best thing to come out of n.z. since the lord of the rings films

  5. jo

    because after years of being a bit crap ms.Perkins finds the qualities that made not her real name so whow.

  6. Pingback: The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013 Longlist | Savidge Reads

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