The Forrests, By Emily Perkins
The family tree under a cloudless sky
Sunday 20 May 2012
Emily Perkins' new novel opens with the making of a home movie and retains the feel of one, full of fragmentary impressions; momentary visual clarity mixed with the jumpy blurrings induced by a handheld camera. The extended opening shot is a swirl of activity, and captures siblings Dorothy, Michael, Eve, Ruth and their new friend Daniel messing about in the garden, then charging into the house for an impromptu game of Scrabble and witnessing their cat give birth in a sweater drawer.
It is 1970s New Zealand, and parents Lee and Frank have defiantly relocated their family from New York – something to do with Frank, a trust-fund baby and would-be actor, wanting to live in a "cloudless" society, as seven-year-old Dorothy comprehends it.
The arc of the book follows the Forrests' lives, primarily focusing on Dorothy: there's an extended stay at a women's commune where the kids, including the by now informally adopted Daniel, play rounders and gin rummy and wade in the nearby stream "trying to be invisible while the wimmin [pass] a joint between them and [bitch] about the patriarchy"; there's a quasi-comic recurrence of letters from the Ministry of Justice, which is trailing Dorothy due to an early disregard for speed limits; there's Eve's brief stint as a chalet girl; and Ruth's return to the US with her parents.
Spanning a timeline that incorporates Kodak Instamatics as well as tablets and Facebook, Perkins dexterously communicates some of life's less-syncopated rhythms; the more mundane moments nestling intractably with bigger ones. Her accomplished balancing act acknowledges the heft and the "freshly-ripped" grief of a life-changing accident, while also appreciating the more commonplace events: the sensation of ears ringing after a gig; the tangible ache of loss inherent in holding onto and wearing your ex's old leather jacket; the quiet comfort of two sisters out on a walk together as mothers.
Most poignantly, and entertainingly, Perkins' knowing eye and unerring hand showcase the way that familial dysfunctions are often writ large at family functions: Dorothy's engagement meal at a Chinese restaurant, where the in-laws are meeting for the first, time distils its relentless march of discomforts perfectly; the farcical elements of a dropped tray and unfortunate allergic reaction jarring beautifully with the spontaneous moment of a secret love publicly revealed. Like the rest of the novel, it is funny, painful and utterly mesmerising.
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