Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Fiction | One Life, Many Stories

The Forrests by Emily Perkins is another novel by a New Zealand author I added to my 'to-read' shelf back when we were in NZ, and once again (like with Tamar), it wasn't really what I expected.

But this time was better!

The Forrests follows one family recently transplanted to New Zealand from New York. There are four children: Evelyn, Dorothy, Michael, and Ruth; and their parents, Lee and Frank—upon whom the names "Mom" and "Dad" were never bestowed by the Forrest children. This family is sort of odd, and you realize they probably came to New Zealand to escape utter failure by American standards. They spend some time on a commune; they all-but-officially adopt a young neighbor, Daniel. You get the impression that Lee and Frank aren't exactly the most doting or involved parents, but somehow the four Forrest kids survive into adulthood.

That's what The Forrests does—it spans this family through the decades, mostly though the eyes of Dorothy. As a child, Dorothy has a strong sensory awareness of the world; these feelings build her memories and are later her tools of nostalgia as the years progress. We follow Dorothy through adolescent relationships, marriage, kids, and the slow passage into old age, and family is the constant that ties the loose ends of her life together—that bridges one extreme to another.

I think the most spectacular thing about this book is the way the story is told; it's really a series of short vignettes, and it takes a while to realize that Dorothy is our main connection to the lives we're seeing. The chapters generally cover a single incident or occurrence; sometimes it's years spanning between the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next, sometimes it's hours. With this loose timeline, it's easy to lose yourself in the characters and their lives. It feels rather symbolic of real life experiences; some are monumental and alter time and place, while some slip by subtly. Suddenly, you find yourself years down the road with a life you never expected, that you may not recognize, about which you may wonder, "How did I get here?"

While at times, this family is frustratingly dysfunctional, that's ultimately not the point of the story at all. And the fact that it takes place in New Zealand is really inconsequential—it could be anytime and anywhere. (Here's where it defied my expectations, as mentioned in the beginning; not really a New Zealand story!) I found myself drawn to the characters in this family, wondering what happened in those gaps of time left out between chapters. I think it's a wonderful portrait of how lives and opinions and situations can change drastically over the years, and I think its beauty and message lies in this, between the lines of the actions that take place on the page.

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