The Forrests, by Emily Perkins (Bloomsbury Circus, 2012), 340 pp., $36.99.
Talking with friends and reading reviews of Emily Perkin’s latest novel, The Forrests, I came away bemused by the range of responses. The critics tended to be impressed but their admiration struck me as less than heartfelt, and the compliments were sometimes delivered with a backhand, as in Simon Savidge’s review on Beattie’s Book Blog. ‘The writing is utterly beautiful’ Savidge writes, ‘yet sometimes Perkins so wants to fill the book with words – which some people will love – the sentences can become never-ending’. The opinions of the friends and colleagues I’ve spoken to suggest a similar jumble: esteem, even fondness, strained by frustration.
A comment on a reader’s reviewing website pointed out that the personality of the characters in The Forrests seemed blurry and the story was hard to follow. This observation seems to me germane. The vast gaps in the narrative, the often unclear motivations of characters, the poetic reoccurrence of what seem to be random memories rarely serve to subtly advance the plot or even to develop our sense of a coherent character. Take, for instance, Dorothy’s detailed recollection of a stay on a childhood commune while her sister Evelyn is recovering from a serious injury: Light came through the window and she was on second base on the field at the commune, followed Michael’s gaze from the batter’s mound to see Eve and Daniel plow toward her through the long grass. Michael thwacked the bat into his palm. Gold lit the grasses. Daniel’s steady stride, Eve behind him, a shadow. This memory serves no predictable function in the novel. It doesn’t develop our understanding of Dorothy’s attachment to her siblings, nor add any special poignancy to the present of the plot. Like all memory, it is accidental, endowed with significance simply because it is remembered: the act of recall is the miracle.