In a Dark Wood by Marcel Moring

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In a Dark Wood by Marcel Moring

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: A rich novel overflowing with phantasmagoric imagery, dream and hallucinatory sequences and abundant symbolism, a mediation on loss and loneliness, alienation and identity, history and society, mesmerising, lush and ghoulish at the same time.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 464 Date: January 2009
Publisher: Fourth Estate Ltd
ISBN: 978-0007129669

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Jacob Noah spent three years hiding in a hole in a bog from the Nazis. When he emerged from his hiding place after the war, his father, mother and brother were dead and their shoe shop had been turned into an Aryan Bookshop.

Over the next thirty five years he turns what remained of the shoe shop into a lingerie empire, then a department store and property portfolio known throughout the country, he also marries, fathers three daughters, gets lovers, gets separated. Still, Jacob's mercantile rampage does nothing to alleviate the aching void, nothing to cure the pain and desolation of the loss he suffered.

Apart from the initial expository seventy or so pages, most of the Moring's novel takes place in the town of Assen over a single night on the 27th of June 1980, on the eve of the TT motorbike races, when the town fills to the brim with drunken bikers and spectators, although flashbacks (and flashbacks within flashbacks too) abound.

Throughout that night, throughout a town that became a peep-show and a nightmarish dream, from bar to bar, from the funfair to the electric bull, and into the woods that weave through the town and surround it, wanders Marcus Kolpa who has returned to find his lost first love, Jacob's daughter, Chaja.

And so does wander Jacob, possibly dead or possibly alive, led by a mysterious figure, mystical and profane both; a pedlar calling himself the Jew of Assen.

In a Dark Wood is a rich novel, overflowing with phantasmagoric imagery, dream and hallucinatory sequences and abundant symbolism. Inter-textual references recur throughout the text (with the Divine Comedy and Ulysses being the two most clearly identifiable reference points).

Moring confidently but overall not gratitiously applies most known techniques of modernist writing from the unpunctuated stream of consciousness to creative non-standard typography to the inclusion of a comic strip right in the middle.

As excellent as In a Dark Wood is as a feverishly clinical section of the darker regions of the human soul, it goes both beyond the universal, and beyond the individual. The parochial Assen might be, on some level, the ultimate Everywhere (everything is there and there is nothing) and Marcus and Jacob versions of the Everyman, but that anus mundi, the town that time almost forgot, the heart of hearts ... the midst of the battle ... a dark wood is firmly located in geography and history. It offers as much a meditation on individual loss and identity as and observation of the darkness at the heart of the whole twentieth century; from the excesses of Nazi genocide to the excesses of modern consumerism, with the Dutch particulars, Christianity and post-colonialism dealt with in passing too.

In a Dark Wood certainly demands careful reading, especially in the most clearly Joycean, unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness sections, but despite all the 'experimental writing' machinery (or maybe even possibly because of it), it's an eminently readable novel, full of people, full of stories which are full of stories themselves. It deals with the fundamentals of human experience and with how history and culture interact with and shape those experiences.

It is, also, and mercifully, a rather funny book (although perhaps not in a laugh-out-loud manner) especially in Marcus' sequences which range from mild sarcasm to all-out farce. Marcus' journey through the circles of hell as embodied by the hordes of drunken bikers in Assen is modelled on Dante (the Dutch original is titled Dis which is the name of an infernal city in the Divine Comedy), but it's Dante seen through the lens of the black humour (not uncommon as a reaction to the horrors of the last century): a cackle on a mass grave, so to speak, and the space Marcus and Jacob travel through is as much the inner space of the tormented souls in search for love and redemption as the external (even if hallucinatory) hell visited by Dante and Orpheus.

Breathtakingly erudite, unashamedly modernist, earthy, ghoulish and lush at the same time, In a Dark Wood captures the reader to take him on a mesmerising trip. It offers no firm conclusions, but the trip is worth taking, and possibly even retaking, notwithstanding the dizzy nausea it may occasionally provoke.

Highly recommended for all those interested in original new fiction with plenty of style and something to say too.

Thanks to Fourth Estate for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

Another novel in which superficially gimmicky technique is used to express important ideas is Martin Amis' Time's Arrow.

Buy In a Dark Wood by Marcel Moring at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy In a Dark Wood by Marcel Moring at Amazon.co.uk


Buy In a Dark Wood by Marcel Moring at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy In a Dark Wood by Marcel Moring at Amazon.com.

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