The Forrests by Emily Perkins

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The Forrests by Emily Perkins

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A beautiful, subtle but addictive study of a family through the lifetime of one of its members. A novel that will surreptitiously grab you till it's over and even then you may spend a while afterwards in its thrall.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: April 2013
Publisher: Bloomsbury Paperbacks
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1408831496

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This is the chronicle of the Forrest family during the life of daughter Dorothy. They move ('they' being Dorothy, father Frank, mother Lee and siblings Michael, Evelyn and little Ruthie) from New York to New Zealand at the age of seven years old. Frank hopes the migration will signal a change in his luck as well as a new life for his family. He's right in that changes follow but there are as many to shake their stability as to still it and the past remains with each of them as well as the de facto adoptee Daniel. Indeed, Dorothy grows to realise that the past is a garment that's worn in some form throughout an entire lifetime.

This Women's Prize for Fiction 2013 long-list nomination is the fourth novel of New Zealand author and broadcaster Emily Perkins. It's written with a profound beauty that I thought I'd have real trouble communicating effectively until I noted that Emily has provided the words herself, calling The Forrests a celebration of the ordinary however even this sells her short as this ordinary celebration is written in an extraordinary way.

It's a deceptively simple read that draws us in right away. Ignore all you may have seen about this being 'experimental fiction' as, if it is, it's extremely accessible and more than encourages a mainstream readership. The episodes drift seamlessly from one moment in time and space to another, jumping chronologically and then sometimes filling in gaps via flashback, unwrapping plot surprises rather than creating confusion. We're caught up and brought into the family in such a way that we almost respond 'No! Really?' aloud as we would when sharing news of our own relatives. It might sound odd but it's a satisfying feeling of total engagement that creeps up on us.

Each of the Forrest children compensates for Frank and Lea's 'hands-off' parenting in some way. In Dorothy's case she drowns her own children in unconditional love while remaining a passive person to whom life happens. (That is, apart from one particular adventure of future consequences appearing from nowhere in her teens.) Not all are passive however; in fact Daniel becomes an emotional catalyst for years to come whatever you may think of him and his motives.

As gentle as it is, the novel doesn't shy away from difficult subjects like mental illness, alcoholism, mortality and domestic abuse. In fact Emily Perkins's style makes them harder hitting than if she'd gone for a confrontational approach as these are events happening to people we've come to know and care about.

The author's bravery pays off in other areas too. Not all the questions the novel poses are resolved. In a couple of cases we're given some options and it's up to us to surmise the most fitting conclusions from what we've learnt. Indeed, we've not only been brought into the family, we assist them in the filtration of rumour from fact.

There are tears, shocks and a smile or two which also jolt us into thinking about our own families and our places in them: areas in which we've changed and areas in which we may as well still be that five-year-old child. 'All this from one normal-length novel.' do I hear you ask? That's why its simplicity is deceptive and also the work of an author who deserves the many awards she will undoubtedly receive for such a rewarding book.

If you've enjoyed this then you'll most definitely enjoy Novel About My Wife also by Emily Perkins.

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