If Emily Perkins was sent reeling to the drinks cabinet on Friday after our “real-life” book group’s verdict on The Forrests - and, hey, I’m projecting here, I’m sure Perkins is made of sterner stuff – she was probably enjoying a more celebratory tipple yesterday after reading the first wave of UK reviews in the weekend’s book pages. (Again, I’m projecting – and revealing rather too much of my own reliance on alcohol. For all I know, Perkins could be a tee-totaller.)
Hidden behind the News International paywall – and revealed by an acquaintance prepared to fork out for a subscription – were reviews in the Times and Sunday Times.
The former was written by novelist Helen Dunmore, who said: “The apparently arbitrary, episodic narrative technique of The Forrests creates compelling patterns. Stand too close, and you see only the marks that the immediate, sensory brush of language against experience has created. But as the novel moves forward over time, perspective develops and the impressionistic style comes into its own.”
Dunmore was particularly taken with the following line: “‘Daniel held his hands towards her and Evelyn saw the rabbit not much bigger than a tennis ball, its ears laid flat against its shoulders, the bark-grey fur soft even to look at, like a layer of mist.’ This is such a finely judged sentence. A less observant writer might have thought that the rabbit’s ears were laid back against its head, but Perkins knows both the physical form of the rabbit, and the way this would strike a child.”
It’s that “layer of mist” that makes the sentence for me.
Things get off to a good start: “To read any page of Emily Perkins’s new novel The Forrests is like swapping your ancient VHS player for the latest high-definition Blu-ray disc. Where other novels approximate, Perkins renders her action with pin-sharp accuracy.”
And Goodwin allows that there is action (contrary to some complaints about the novel). “The Forrests are astonishingly unlucky; fate deals them a positively Sophoclean assortment of fatal car crashes, bicycle accidents and amputations. There are enough events in this book to fill half a dozen novels, yet the painterly precision of Perkins’s prose means that we are always looking at the foreground detail rather than the seismic events behind.”
It’s not all praise, however. Perkins is “an extraordinary writer” but “not, yet, quite as accompllshed a novelist”. Her “characters, unlike their settings, are a little out of focus. Dorothy, who emerges as the central character a little too late in the book, is too passive to be a wholly satisfactory protagonist … her motivation is opaque.”
Passivity, like unlikeability, strikes me as a strange complaint about a character. Opaque motivation, too. Those things sound true to life to me.
The review ends: “But as Perkins manages to pack in more pixels per page than most writers do in a chapter, [the] lack of narrative drive is a shortcoming, not a disaster. The Forrests is a novel to be savoured, not gulped.”
Over in the Independent on Sunday, where thankfully there is no paywall, you can read this review by Daneet Steffens, who describes the novel as “funny, painful and utterly mesmerising”.
Perkins, says Steffens, “dexterously communicates some of life’s less-syncopated rhythms; the more mundane moments nestling intractably with bigger ones”.
On the Arts Council England-supported website Fiction Uncovered, Cheltenham Literary Festival manager Charles Haynes enthuses: “There is heart to this novel. There is real, tangible soul in how this book has been put together.” Haynes can’t resist a Virginia Woolf comparison, either.
Finally, some listening for you: BBC Radio 4′s arts discussion show Saturday Review. Skip to 10.50 of the audio stream, try not to flinch too much at the Kiwi accent (not Perkins’s) reading an extract from the novel and be prepared for something not often heard on Saturday Review (a weekly listen for me and thoroughly recommended) – all-round praise from the three panellists and only a minor quibble about “claustrophobic detail” from presenter Tom Sutcliffe.
Sample comments: “a great novel”; “I’m going to have to say Virginia Woolf [her again - along with this time Anne Tyler and Alice Munro]“; ‘terrible – terrible in a good way – pathos”; “word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, this book accelerates into brilliance”.
Well, that’s the blurb for the paperback edition sorted.