The book is a gentle rhythmic meditation on life, on youth and adulthood, on loneliness and the constant struggle to keep it at bay. Bright, colorful descriptions abound; the reader can almost smell Auckland in the spring, can feel the sky high and cloudless above. If nothing else this novel seduces its reader into the world Perkins builds with words, physical, lonely and yet absolutely beautiful. — Erin Stagg
From the first page of The Forrests Emily Perkins immerses the reader in a world overwhelmed with the sensual experience of living. Colors abound. Bodies swell and diminish. The characters are constantly kissing, caressing and rejoicing in physical contact. Even inanimate items such as sidewalks and movie cameras bulge and undulate. Emily Perkins uses this carnal imagery to tie her novel together, creating continuity throughout. But Perkins also uses physical imagery to insulate her main character Dorothy Forrest from the ugliness and difficulty of death, poverty and loss, thus creating tension.
Emily Perkins is a New Zealand writer who spent her youth waiting tables and trying to carve out a career as an actress. In 1993, however, she studied creative writing at The University of Victoria Wellington, and three years later she published her first collection of short stories. Since then she has lived in London, moved back to New Zealand, and won various international awards including the Buddle Findlay Frank Sargeson Fellowship and a Montana Book Award in 2009. The New Zealand Herald has referred to her recently “the darling of New Zealand literature.” She now lives in Auckland where teaches writing and hosts a evening literary TV Program called The Good Word. Since the publication of her earlier novel, Novel About My Wife, Perkins has established herself as one of the most popular writers working currently in New Zealand.
The Forrests recounts the life of Dorothy Forrest from childhood to old age. The novel opens with Dorothy’s father filming her and her siblings as they play in the back garden with a cardboard box. The family has recently moved from New York to Auckland, New Zealand, so that, as their father puts it, “they can live in a cloudless society.” Throughout the novel Dorothy’s family ebbs and flows around her. Her four siblings come and go, moving across the world and coming back to New Zealand again. Her connection to them strengthens and then weakens again. She becomes sexually and emotionally involved with Daniel, a boy who moved in with the family at thirteen and effectively established himself as a sort of adopted sibling. But Daniel leaves to travel the world and Dorothy’s sister Eve follows. Her parents return to New York, taking the youngest sister Ruth with them. Michael distances himself from Dorothy and they lose contact. Eve passes away. And so Dorothy fills the gap, “the love gap,” with babies of her own.
Yet her family continues to come and go from her life. She sees Daniel at a high school reunion but then he disappears again. As part of a therapy program Dorothy gets back in contact Michael and helps him come to terms with his failed company and lonely existence but he moves away to a commune. Her parents die. Her children move away and her husband Andrew divorces her. And so Dorothy is left entirely alone as she dips towards old age. She survives her solitude as she has everything else, by insulating herself with the physicality of the world around her, its smells and colors and tactile pleasures. The novel follows the course of Dorothy’s life chronologically, although spotted with memories that serve as backfill, and is written in the third person point of view, staying mostly close to Dorothy although there are chapters in which Perkins moves the narration to Eve.
Perkins uses references the body to create continuity into the novel. She writes about her characters’ hair, how it is done up and how it changes. Dorothy, for instance, gets gum caught in her hair on her first day of school and her “long blond new-girl American hair” must be cut. Eve cuts hers to match.
Their mother slowly sobered as the haircut progressed. In the small bathroom, Evelyn, still wheezing, watched with solemn interest. When it was done Dot looked like a windblown pixie, and without stopping to study the effect Lee gathered the clippings in a sheet of newspaper and went to make dinner. Eve picked up the scissors from the windowsill, turning their flashing points in the afternoon sun. She bumped Dorothy out of the way of the mirror, lifted a strand of her own hair and began to snip, pausing every now and then to cough. When she’d gone round the front she handed the scissors to Dorothy. ‘Do the back?’ The amount of hair felt alarming in Dot’s hands, but she did it. Eve covered her smile with her palm, and looked at Dot in the mirror, her eyes glazed with croup and anarchy. The room orbited slowly around the scissors. When Eve was well they would go to school together and then look out.
The imagery of hair appears and reappears throughout the novel, tracking and identifying the changes the characters have undergone or are in the process of undergoing. Hair is constantly being cut, clipped, combed, touched, held and dyed pink. When Eve returns from Canada, recently abandoned by Daniel, Dorothy observes her “tawny hair, the energy rising off her like tendrils of smoke, her undeniable fuckability and said, ‘Do you regret coming back?’”
Change is everywhere in this novel. Perkins uses the images of hair, and of the body, to show her characters changing as they live. Dorothy’s ever-changing body grows out of childhood into womanhood and then swells with motherhood, driving the novel forwards.
With the first baby Dorothy had been small enough to fit inside the cot too, to curl up and comfort Grace when she wouldn’t stop crying, and then she got bigger and bigger until now so much of herself pressed against the cot sides while she leaned down that it’s bars creaked and scraped against the wall. A little rubbed line was appearing in the paint.
But these changes are not only physical, in fact the physical change is merely a superficial means of showing the deeper, growing changes that occur within the character’s minds. The changes are the main focus of the tension in this novel, people growing apart and close again, always yearning for someone to keep loneliness away, someone to fill “the love gap.” The only character who welcomes change seems to be Daniel, the wandering, semi-adopted brother who disappears and returns to Dorothy’s life with a tidal consistency.
Nothing out of the ordinary occurs in this novel. Its beauty, perhaps, is that Perkins uncovers the extraordinary in the ordinary. The book is a gentle rhythmic meditation on life, on youth and adulthood, on loneliness and the constant struggle to keep it at bay. Bright, colorful descriptions abound; the reader can almost smell Auckland in the spring, can feel the sky high and cloudless above. If nothing else this novel seduces its reader into the world Perkins builds with words, physical, lonely and yet absolutely beautiful.
Erin Stagg is a freshly-minted graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing Program. She grew up in Taos, New Mexico, studied Spanish at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and now lives in New Zealand where she teaches skiing in the winter and works in retail in the summer. She was awarded the 2002 Wellesley College Johanna Mankiewicz Davis Prize for Prose Fiction. Her short fiction has also appeared in The Battered Suitcase.