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.
‘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.