Into the Forest by Jean Hegland (Arrow, pounds 5.99)

Tuesday's book
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
"Surely the forest is filled with things to eat."

Not until the last quarter of her novel does Jean Hegland let slip this simple, almost biblical, statement. Unobtrusively, it expresses the inspiration of the whole book, from title to conclusion.

Thinking of the forest as provider marks the break between two imagined futures: one in which the social order has collapsed, but may yet return to normal, and another which rejects even the wish to regain the world of cultivated food, cities and communications.

The novel opens with two young sisters, Nell and Eva, struggling to celebrate Christmas in their isolated childhood home in California. They are used to living in a clearing at the end of a forestry road, but not to being without the support of parents, electricity, transport. Now alone, they face the combined consequences of personal loss and more distant social calamities. Their Christmas presents symbolise an expected return to the lives they were planning: renovated ballet shoes for Eva, a book of blank pages for Nell. But although Eva sticks to her dance practice and Nell to her studies, the demands of the present push these aspirations into irrelevance.

By the time two men have strayed in and out of their lives, leaving one sister pregnant and both terrified of the violence beyond their clearing, the depths of the forest are beginning to look less threatening than the wilderness of what was formerly civilisation. The conceptual shift that allows them to abandon the idea of their house and of cultivating produce in favour of a roofed-over redwood stump and the foods of the forest is helped by Nell's reading about how indigenous Californians used to live.

Jean Hegland herself lives in circumstances that sound much like those of Nell and Eva's parents before the onset of the disasters - with one foot in the forest, the other in the world. The strength of her novel lies in its loving evocation of that sort of life, with its necessary balancing-act between high-minded independence and accommodation with modernity.

The flashbacks to the summer before, when the father is alive and there is still enough petrol to drive into town to meet friends, are particularly poignant. Disintegration is afoot, but all is not yet lost.

Although set in the future, with the consequences of war and environmental damage well imagined, Into the Forest does not have a cutting-edge feel. Both in style and thinking it is more reminiscent of the 19th century; of pioneering fortitude, and of the anguished seriousness of William Morris or Richard Jefferies. Hegland does not make clear whether she is proposing redwood stumps or dreams of rebirthing by bears as viable strategies for survival, or as poetic metaphors for humankind's need to co-operate with, rather than dominate, nature. It is easy to see why this lyrically written and absorbing novel has touched chords in the US. It is also easy to see why, in cynical old Europe, it may have a harder time doing so.

Ruth Pavey