Sunday, August 12, 2012

Not at all feeble

This was one of the stages that would happen, just as now she was at the stage of crawling confidently, briskly, towards cigarette butts whenever they were in the park. When she sat up it was a miracle of posture, her back beautifully erect, her big round head a weightless balloon.

Emily Perkins, The Forrests (2012)

What a lovely, exact image of a baby.

As you've probably worked out, there aren't a lot of recently published books in the attic, but I like Emily Perkins, and have read every one of her books.

To my mind, this, The Forrests, is her best. It's the story of Dorothy Forrest, from childhood to death, told in a series of stories, different parts of her life.

EM Forster, in his Aspects of the Novel (A book  I studied at university and often have recourse to) says that nearly all novels are feeble in the end. This is because the characters start being manipulated by the plot, which takes over as a book nears its denouement.

I do find this, and this is why I nearly always like the beginnings of novels more than the later stages. Characters start out acting naturally, and then 'Oh No! Here comes the plot!', rolling like a juggernaut towards them, crushing them and rendering them lifeless.

This doesn't happen in this novel; it's satisfying all the way through, and especially at the end, because the 'plot' as such is life. Dorothy and her sister and brothers and parents and husband and children - and Daniel, the stray, deprived boy who attaches himself to the family as a child, and who Dorothy loves all her life.

I do think that people are inherently interesting - I'm never bored by the stories friends and family tell me of their life. And in novels, I don't demand that exciting things happen, just that the story be told in an engaging and meaningful way. There has to be a shape to a novel, and in this way they differ from life, which appears amorphous at times. And a meaning needs to emerge as well - isn't this why we like novels? That they are 'shaped and artful'.

In portraying life as worthwhile and engrossing and difficult, there is wisdom in this book; I think this is what I look for when I read. And there is art. Perkins is a sensory writer - we experience Dorothy's life in minute detail, we are there with her, and the images are poetic and true.  The only problem is that sometimes - and only sometimes - the detail takes over.  There's a boring bit where a cup of coffee is made, and sometimes the physical movements are described so exactly that I find them hard to follow, and I imagine the characters' bodies contorted in an unnatural way as in a game of Twister.

But then there is the beautiful simplicity of sentences like this :

 "In the dim bedroom, Louisa reached for Dorothy's hand."

Coming at the end of a paragraph of description, it perfectly weights it. This is what I like - language with rhythm.

This book was a friend to me. I immersed myself in it. I remember reading the passage quoted above while sitting in the sun on the balcony off our bedroom with a cup of tea, on a day when I strongly needed to relax and breathe and have time to myself.


  1. What a wonderful recommendation. Thanks Jo, I'll be looking for this one, to enjoy and to learn from. x

    1. And I do hope you enjoy it Kate. Or try Perkin's 'Not Her Real name', a book of stories, her first, when she was in her 20s. x