09.19.12

Into the Woods With Virginia Woolf: Emily Perkins and ‘The Forrests’

Emily Perkins’s fourth novel, The Forrests, positions her as the heir to Virginia Woolf’s approach to fiction—for them, life is measured by the intensity of the various episodes that constitute it.

Meet the Forrests. In Emily Perkins’s fourth novel, they’re a family that has upped sticks from New York (“Oh my god, the hub of the world”) to Westmere, in Auckland, New Zealand. There’s Frank and Lee; their four children, Michael, Evelyn, Dorothy, and Ruth; and the unofficial adoptee, Daniel.

The Forrests is very much a novel about “the thrashing octopus of family”—some escape its tentacles while others are “pulled under.” But what begins as a classic family saga slowly but steadily narrows in focus until Dorothy alone is the dictating consciousness. The novel begins during the siblings’ childhood in the 1970s and spans a 60-odd-year period before concluding as Dorothy takes her final breath. The plot is chronological, but the chapters are episodic: a summer the children spent on a “wimmin’s commune” with their mother while their father is away; Evelyn’s spell as a chalet girl; a dinner at a Chinese restaurant to celebrate Dorothy’s engagement; the two sisters taking a walk together with their children. It’s the details of the everyday that interests Perkins: the births and deaths, tragedies and celebrations that constitute a life. Nevertheless, her hypnotically beautiful prose sculpts the simplicity of the childhood-to-deathbed plot of one woman’s ordinary existence into something extraordinary.

The master of the close-up is Virginia Woolf, and there’s something decidedly Woolfian in Perkins’s narrow focus and her episodic and fragmentary style. She takes what the famous modernist described as the “myriad impressions” received by the mind on any given day, whether “trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpest of steel,” and breathes life into them. Dorothy sees glass from a broken car window lying glittering in the street “like shattered mentholated sweets.” As she sits on the quayside eating a sandwich lunch, she and her sister are assaulted by the stench of salty seawater, “deep as petroleum, filthy, alive.” Details like this, full of taste and smell, animate the text. This penetrating style of portraiture works on the subtlest of emotional responses as well. Here’s how she describes a grief-stricken husband: “His entire self folds of hanging grey fabric.”

This impressionistic exposition means that more often than not it’s the reader’s responsibility to join up the dots in order to make sense of the whole. But part of the magnificence of the novel is the way in which each of the 20 chapters can be read as a stand-alone piece, not least because of the time that passes unaccounted for in between them; sometimes it’s hours, sometimes it’s years, but the center always holds.

This sensory-heavy world is first centered on the children running wild on the commune, then later in their adolescent experiences back home. Their world becomes a box full of intoxicating excesses. The running water that “formed a pattern like the devore-velvet dress” their mother wears is “bone-cold” to the touch. Every blade of grass stings and slaps the backs of their bare legs. The first time Dorothy gets pulled over for speeding, she experiences dread that “trickled down like an egg cracked over [a] scalp.” At first glance, Perkins’s style is most suited to depicting the fleeting impressions of youth, but she turns her hand to the various stages of adulthood with an effect no less arresting. The carnal delights of Dorothy’s first love may well give way to the mundane monotony of motherhood, the predictability of middle age, and finally the confusion of her twilight years, but the reality is that, internally, very little changes. “Adulthood was like this—your voice calm, your face normal, while inside, turmoil, your heart still seven, or twelve, or fifteen.” Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway condenses the entirety of one woman’s life into the passage of a single day, while The Forrests opens up the approach to include two sisters through years and decades. But there always remains the combination of the trivial and the significant, the ephemeral and the everlasting. That, after all, is the essence of existence.