Emily Perkins is one of those rare writers who demands that the reader savour every word – at her pace. She tells a story of love and misfortune at once so original and universal that even impatient readers daren’t skip a line. Read each sentence carefully, because Perkins has a disarming ability to knock you sideways with plot development. Just when you are getting comfortable, the novel’s direction swerves; action lags, then races ahead. The Forrests demands your full attention.
Set in New Zealand, the novel follows the lives of the Forrest family. The family move from New York for reasons only half-explained to the Forrest children. It seems the father, Frank, is partly chasing a dream of artistic fulfilment and a wish to live in a ‘cloudless society’ (or so ten-year-old Dorothy, his middle daughter, once mishears). They soon find themselves in a new kind of wilderness at what seems, to the Forrest children, the very end of the world. Dealing with parents who seem forever locked in their own dynamic, and in a place that seems at times both foreign and cruel, the Forrest children unify. Michael, Evelyn, Dorothy and Ruth are soon joined by Daniel, a local child who seems almost without background and who, it turns out, irrevocably entwines himself in their lives.
The Forrests pivots on the formative months the children and their mother, Lee, spend at the Hungry Creek commune when Frank has returned to America in pursuit of money from a family trust fund. This theme of growing up (or not), of reverting to type and patterns of behaviour, informs the rest of the novel. Like Frank, forever trapped by his own sense of entitlement and unrecognised brilliance, each of the Forrest children tries to both escape their misfortunes and hold onto the fragments of love and family that follow them from childhood.
The story focuses on two of the Forrest girls, Dorothy and Evelyn, as they move from observing their parents’ strained, strange relationship; through the fumbles of first loves, sex and friendship; to marriages and children of their own. Perkins’ linear narrative allows the sweep of their lives from childhood to death to be told in a way that seems at once broad-brush and immediate. Even as she tackles these large themes of love and loss, Perkins manages to convey that her characters take pleasure in the sensory beauty of the everyday. Some of Perkins’ descriptions force the reader to slow down and observe the profundity in the minute details of the characters’ lives. One such moment is when Evelyn cooks dinner for Daniel:
Evelyn tried to focus on the food. The onions in the wicker basket were firm, golden orbs, crunchy green beneath the skin where the knife sliced and left pungent, milky droplets on the chopping board. At the industrial-sized oven she turned on the dials, stiff with trapped food crumbs, and kept chopping. The chopped onions were soft and translucent in the frying pan. The kitchen smelled of their cooking and of melted cheese. There was a tumbling sound as she tipped dried macaroni into the boiling water, which fizzed up and over the rim of the saucepan in a rush of white froth. The salt shaker clogged in the steam. She put the macaroni cheese in the oven and started on the birthday cake.
Minute observations like this are tempered with descriptions of a New Zealand landscape Perkins clearly loves. The landscape plays a significant part in the book, and the characters’ relationship with place mirrors their relationship with each other. As children, they see the ‘cloudless’ skies of New Zealand as foreign, something to escape from. Yet, as each of their lives progresses and their parents recede, the younger Forrests are drawn back, newly entangled in the beauty and wilderness of the place they grew up.
This sense of the inevitable circularity of life – that ultimately your bonds to family and place will entangle you – could make The Forrests suffocating. Yet Perkins skilfully avoids any spiral into too-serious despair. Instead, the story is told with a strong dose of compassion and revels in the often absurd dynamics of family dysfunction. This novel is also, at times, very funny.
For readers who are willing to slow down to Perkins’ pace, let the novel take them where it will and revel in the sheer reverence of the everyday, The Forrests is worth the journey.
Annabelle Craft is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Melbourne. Her essay ‘The Big Pineapple: The Revival of an Australian Icon’ appears in Issue 9 of Kill Your Darlings.