The Forrests, By Emily Perkins

This magnificent New Zealand novel maps the joys and compromises of a not-so-ordinary family.

Arifa Akbar@arifa_akbar
Thursday 31 May 2012 20:34

This novel begins as a book about a family – the Forrests – and gradually homes in on one woman in it, Dorothy Forrest. A teacher, wife and mother in Auckland, she is set in the foreground. Her "loved ones" become satellite characters revolving around her – her remote father, her childhood sweetheart, her sensible, self-improving husband, her older sister, Evelyn, with whom she has a twin-like intimacy, her various children and grandchildren.

Dorothy's emotional gyrations follow those of an average, happy-enough life. There are the universal lows of family illnesses, accidents, divorce and deaths alongside the universal highs of romance and love. It might sound like a dreary ambition – to attempt to capture the fullness of one rather ordinary life – but Emily Perkins's book ends up being extraordinary.

There is nothing that is reductive or dull in how she presents Dorothy to us. Her life is complicated and emotionally inconclusive, filled with the banal and the sublime, the commonplace and the tragic, just as real life is.

She and Evelyn are two young girls playing in the back garden at the beginning. The adult world – their father's temporary departure, his fall from financial grace, her stay in a women's commune with their mother –is often shown through a child's filter. It is so sensitively rendered that you feel every detail, down to the blades of grass that grazes the children's knees. At times, the first part of the book has the same solid physicality as the vividly drawn childhood sections of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.

It seems, in these pages, as if Perkins has a special gift for capturing a child's inner universe, but the talent extends itself as the novel progresses to the incandescent joys and devastations of teenage love, the compromises of mid-life and the tragedy of old age. Perkins's previous novels have focused on youthful drifting, as in her debut, Leave Before You Go, on teenage lives in The New Girl, and mid-life malaise in Novel About My Wife. Here, she joins up the ages from beginning to end, and each era is described with a glowing authenticity, even the stream-of-consciousness that seems to take us into death.

Dorothy's deepest ruminations come in mid-life. She seems both to dodge, and be plagued by, the question of whether she settled for her husband, Andrew, or settled down with a man who could commit to her in a way that her real love, Daniel, could not, despite their mutual ardour.

Perkins has the ability to convey momentous feeling in small moments such as the domestic passages when nothing – and everything – seems to happen. Her transformation from a mother into a vulnerable old lady is captured in a brief kitchen accident: "She took a pot of cottage cheese from the fridge and misjudged the lid's grip and it fell to the floor... Her hands as she wiped it looked like somebody else's, the skin cellophane-shiny in places and spotted, the fingers red and swollen at the knuckles, the nails beginning to ridge."

Life is a fleetingly glorious thing, Perkins seems to say in this magnificent novel. As Dorothy's body gradually shrivels, she thinks: "There was no time between being a child, really bemused by bodies like this and having one of your own". Yet inside, nothing changes at all. Even as an old woman, joy, intensity, and youthful hope persists: "Adulthood was like this – your voice calm, your face normal, while inside, turmoil, your heart still seven, or twelve, or fifteen."

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