BOOK REVIEW: The Forrests (Emily Perkins, Bloomsbury)

Dorothy Forrest is seven years old when the Forrests move from New York, with dwindling money, to New Zealand. At the opening of the novel, Frank, the father, is capturing his children on a movie camera, trying to make them participate in a special effect. The children run off in different directions, bored of their father’s instructions. But a fragment, a celluloid memory, is captured, and as the novel skips forward in time with each chapter, the past—and the figures in it—hover at the edges of Dorothy’s life.

Emily Perkins, acclaimed author of Novel about My Wife, chronicles a person’s life with depth, poignancy and passion. She manages to find the right, often surprising, words to describe the sensation of being in the world, both in the moment and over time. She never resorts to cliché. Often Dorothy exists both in the past—with her first love and family friend, Daniel, or with her beloved sister Eve—and in the present. She is bemused at how quickly time passes; in later chapters she fails to recognise her own reflection. The novel is, overall, a metaphor for this, with an entire life nestled between the front and back cover. It reflects the deep sadness of time passing, but also the potent joy of ‘the little things’—sensations—of which Dorothy reminds herself and is grateful. Dorothy is perpetually surprised by who she seems to be, and where she has ended up, through choice and life’s inevitable turns.

The Forrests is partly about survival, not just how we survive the often difficult and tragic events in our lives, but how we survive each other: our parents, our lovers, our children. It’s also about how we survive ourselves; how we deal with remnants of the past that remain with us, and how we deal with new fears that crop up and change us. How, too, do we deal with getting older? At one point Dorothy’s brother mentions their family friend and her first love: ‘Flickered with adrenaline, caught out as always at the mention of his name, [Dorothy] told Mike that last she heard he’d gotten married. Adulthood was like this—your voice calm, your face normal, while inside white turmoil squirted, your heart still seven, or twelve, or fifteen.’

The Forrests is a work of art as well as a successful narrative. It is nuanced, compelling and a treat for the mind, senses and emotions. Comparisons to Virginia Woolf, Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith and Ali Smith are all valid in the way they deal, in some of their works, with members of a family over time.

Angela Meyer is a writer, literary blogger and former acting editor of Bookseller+Publisher. This review first appeared in the April/May issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine.