Wilderness is increasingly strange to us. We watch it disappear from our cultivated planet, perhaps ashamed of our role in its destruction. It’s become a word for a quality, rather than a place: something at once earthly and mysterious, to which we only half belong. In Emily Perkins’ fourth novel, wilderness is an emotional terrain; a force of chaos and desire that rumbles beneath everyday life; a sort of subterranean mulch into which we might fall if we don’t tread carefully. This wilderness is also family.
Useless Frank, his bitter wife Lee, their four children and the stray Daniel make up the Forrest family. In the early chapters they are stationed without Frank in a commune outside Auckland, with life a haphazard improvisation. Immediately, we are thrown into a stream of movement and a tangle of siblings. (The shared inner life of childhood is painted as well here as you will find it.)
As the Forrests grow to adulthood, they form a tiny diaspora. The parents cast off their grown children as more or less failed experiments. Dot and her sister Eve contest for Daniel, each keeping him only as a secret loss. The man himself is a vaguely drawn object of desire, which gives the effect of making both women seem victims of their appetites. This notion that desire is made subordinate to rational life is problematic, but familiar. And it’s so beautifully rendered that unfulfilled desire becomes the energy that carries this expansive book.
Still, Perkins goes to great lengths to avoid putting her story in its broader social context. She always holds to the specific subjectivity of her characters, allowing the reader to glean glimpses of the universal. Like a smooth flat stone, the narrative skims across a whole lifetime, alighting on moments – scenes from the scattering of the Forrest family – and lifting away again with Woolfish grace. The novel keeps a linear rhythm, while skipping years at a time; it’s a feat which gives the work the surprising pace of life itself.
Perkins’ prose is at its greatest and most strange at either end of the novel, in the childhood and old age of the woman who emerges as its protagonist, Dorothy Forrest. Childhood and old age are shot through with a delicious interiority which sandwiches the more prosaic concerns of middle life: fidelity, children, inheritance.
If there is a core here, it is the power of the inner life, and The Forrests raises questions about the inner life as a woman’s salvation. Dot’s a woman who ‘walked around outrageously in her own mind’, and her battle is Lily Briscoe’s battle, brilliantly drawn out. Like Woolf’s painter, she’s frustratingly passive at times, and her deference to the needs of others can become exasperating as she struggles for creative self-expression. But her interior world is rich.
Thinking about the power of the inner life brings me to Jeanette Winterson, whose great defence of the arts rests upon the necessity of the private mind. ‘If the inner life is not supported and sustained, then there is nothing between us and the daily repetition of what Wordsworth called “getting and spending”,’ she wrote.
Where Winterson sees the inner life as having revolutionary potential, as the individual’s last refuge from capitalism, Perkins presents us with its other use: as a refuge from responsibility. Dot does not descend into insanity as do the heroines of so many of this book’s predecessors (those of her countrywoman Janet Frame, for example), but there is always a sense of that slippage, avoided through constant, active work. Without a creative outlet, Dot’s work revolves around her children and, later, herself.
Reading The Forrests, I felt torn between needs, particularly the need for interior liberty and the need for social change. Dot’s inherited helplessness and passivity are a frustrating pattern. How long can you blame your parents for your failings? How much therapy do you need to stop repeating their mistakes? Despite its Auckland setting, The Forrests – with its primacy of kinship, its characters’ slow abandonment of efforts to make sense of the world outside, the fear of breaking the hold of ‘the thrashing octopus of family’, and the devil in the wings – seems an American novel.
That tension between self and family shows Perkins to be a writer with Christina Stead’s ambition, though her prose is so poised I found myself longing for Stead’s gleeful descents into the muck of rage and lust. But Perkins is another kind of writer: she has cultivated her landscape and chaos is kept at bay.
The Forrests remains a work of great emotional depth, which asks intimate questions. Do we trap ourselves, for example, in the solace of an inner life instead of going into battle against all of the forces – domestic, financial, legal, emotional, relational – that push us from our desires?
It isn’t the work of the novel to have an answer. Here, the contexts are complex, slippery; the enemies hard to pin down. If there is a struggle it is subconscious, global, domestic and impossible. Revelation in The Forrests is a form of collapse, offering only tenuous sustenance, and little relief from the demands that shadow women – our complicity maintains an ordered world.
And yet it’s the wilderness that saves us from despair. I like Dot the most in the later years, when she begins to lose her grip and makes tiny forays into chaos, with a certain amount of cheek. She reminds me of the women I know who have worked and fought hard, and, in the latter decades of their life, no longer give a fuck what people think of them. It is a place I wish more women would get to sooner.
The wilderness was always an artificial line we drew between ourselves and nature, and thus a phenomenon of mind. Dot’s release is, in the end, a kind of walking into wilderness, but it is the wilderness of sensory being and immersion in the nature of the self. I suspect that there is a kind of egotistical weakness in this immersion, but it is a weakness as intensely true to life as this exceptional novel.