Posted on 18th May 2012

By Charles Haynes, Manager of the Cheltenham Literature Festival, Co-founder of Literary Dinners

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The Forrests

Emily Perkins

There is heart to this novel. There is real, tangible soul in how this book has been put together. With care and attention to the characters, what they do and how they go about dealing with the consequences – handling their lives on a daily basis and on into the future. That single feat alone makes The Forrests – the second release of the new Bloomsbury Circus imprint – noteworthy.

Easily enough, a writer can pull on heart-strings and play up the melodramatic. This can make us feel, but often in a tawdry or even guilt-ridden manner. Like watching a particularly lurid soap opera: emotional masturbation. But Emily Perkins manages to craft a family, the Forrests, from clay words into real men and women. They are, as Adam and Eve to us, filled with significance.

We start with a large family, filled with rambunctious boys, money troubles, and daughters so close they mimic each other, finish sentences for one another; and we hear of marital difficulties that flux in and out of importance, become moot in the face of everything else the children cause.

The Forrests excels because Perkins achieves all this while also toying with a vagueness of form, as if the entirety is blurred by the brightness of the sun: figures are indistinct, there’s the skipping of months or years, characters run in and out of the unfocussed vision of the novel. Yet, they feel powerfully real.

There’s a comparison to be drawn here with Virginia Woolf, whose characters often seem distinctly drawn out, like “too little butter scraped over too much bread”, to mix references.* Mrs Dalloway is quite specific in language and tone, but manages the impression of thinness well, as does The Forrests.

At times, the narrative is itself a little stretched, not giving over to comprehension easily. However, The Forrests is all the more remarkable for it, representing more the feeling of lived experience than that of scientific reality. Two daughters attempt the lives of fairytale princesses – true love and happy endings – as the novel jumps months and years at a time to accentuate their disappointments. They’re chasing a young lover; next they’ve married someone else and are having kids.

Of course, the writing offers no overt judgements of its own; Perkins does not wave a magic wand either. Instead, we are left seemingly alone with these people, stuck as readers in the double-bind of both voyeur and powerless accomplice to the family’s activities.

This book tore through me, as great writing often does. Emptying itself upon you, The Forrests overflows with the lives of others.

*That is Bilbo Baggins.

Charles Haynes is manager of the Cheltenham Literature Festival and co-founder of Literary Dinners.

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