One of the nice things about being asked to review books elsewhere is that invariably the books that I get sent, or can choose from, are not books I would have initially picked myself. This happened when We Love This Book asked me if I would like to read Katie Kitamura’s latest novel ‘Gone to the Forest’. I hadn’t read any of her previous work and new very little about her, so it seemed an ideal way of trying a completely new to me author which I jumped at the chance of trying.
In an unnamed country we meet Tom and his father, the latter who set up a farm on 100,000 acres of bush land and river trying forty years ago to make a living on cattle and the Dorado fish. As the novel opens Tom over hears an announcement on the radio declaring a civil war on this colonial land and while he worries he really thinks nothing of it. His thoughts are otherwise occupied as other domestic and natural disasters threaten as a woman intended for him, yet stolen by his father, becomes a demure threat to the life he knows and then a volcano erupts threatening to end the farming life they have created.
More often than not as the book progresses you almost forget that there could be a civil war on the horizon, but that, it seemed to me, is Kitamura’s plan as suddenly the book takes a much darker and horrifying turn of events as we read on. What I really admired with ‘Gone to the Forest’ is that she uses the natural disasters and events that happen initially both as a separate story, which leads to people acting in an animalistic and rather disturbing way, and a precursor to also almost foreshadow what is to come and add a sense of foreboding to the novel early on.
“They are reading the wrong signs. The right signs have nothing to do with history or culture. Two days before the eruption the snakes fled down the mountain. They slid, then dropped into the river and drowned. Within hours they were washing up on the dirt banks of the river. Stiff and twisted like small branches of wood, their bodies rigid in death.”
Kitamura seems to have two very differing styles of writing which she interestingly combines both in the light and dark shades of the atmosphere, the beauty of the landscape and also the foreboding nature I mentioned. She also does this with characters. For example with Tom, who should be out hero of the piece and yet seems to be rather ineffectual to be honest, he is a character built by everyone else, not just in terms how they seem him but how they treat him and interact with him. He seems to be the target of his father’s bullying and anger of his mother’s death and also the butt of jokes to the staff and even to his intended wife. Subsequently whilst I wanted to feel for him, I also wanted him to grow a pair to be honest.
“Tom is like a blind man. He does not see what is about to hit him in the face and knock him down. It has been shown to him but he has been looking the other way. Jose is not inclined to explain, perhaps believing the task to be insurmountable.”
Kitamura also has a raw and earthy writing style that is filled with energy and almost bristles with an inexplicable heat and anger on occasion. This was when I found the book its most powerful and, after Tom’s father being such a bully, it is when Tom’s intended, or ‘the girl’, arrives into the story that everything takes a much darker and angrier turn, both in the characters actions (one scene is truly shocking) and also in the writing itself.
“She is like a bitch in heat. The same smell comes off the animals during mating season. They run across the land, eyes rolling in the back of their heads, sick and made foul with desire. They have to lock the dogs away when they are like this. There is nothing else for it. They should do the same to the girl only it is too late and the fever has already set in. Into all of them, into the walls of the house.”
For me it was in the latter cases when Kitamura’s prose was at its most wonderfully evocative and I think I would have liked the whole book to have had that spark. Weirdly it was anything around Tom and his thoughts, or lack of them, that made ‘Gone to the Forest’ a little distant; sometimes I couldn’t emotionally connect with him and yet it really was his story overall, I was more interested in everyone else. By the end of the book though I was hooked and harrowed in equal measure.
I certainly won’t forget ‘Gone to the Forest’ and I think really that is what Kitamura wants and maybe why you need the mundane nature of Tom to make what comes have such a stark contrast. There are some books which very slowly take you by the hand and as they lead you along they grip you tighter and tighter before suddenly letting you go and leaving their mark on you for days to come. This was very much what happened with me and this book. ‘Gone to the Forest’ is a book which starts of very quietly yet taking you by surprise with a cracking great wallop at the end.
I am pondering if this might just be on the Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist next week, it has a certain passion in its prose that really makes it stand out. We will have to see. In the meantime has anyone else read it? Has anyone read Katie’s debut ‘The Longshot’? It is about boxing and whilst that is not by any means a subject I have any interest in I am inclined to seek it out.