“All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Whatever the truth of Tolstoy’s observation, unhappy, or what are now called dysfunctional, families are meat and drink to the novelist, and not only because they offer more material.
by Emily Perkins
Bloomsbury Circus, 340pp, £12.99
In happy families there may be no story, certainly no drama; it’s quite the reverse with unhappy ones. Moreover, there is always a market for family sagas.
The Forrests are a family, and The Forrests is a family saga, stretching over half-a-dozen decades, and three generations. It is set mostly in New Zealand where the Forrests had moved “from oh my god, the hub of the world, New York City” when the main characters of the novel, Dorothy and Eve were seven and eight respectively. Dot thought her father said, “At last we live in a cloudless society”– a nice bit of mishearing. There is a trust fund somewhere in the background, but the father, Frank, is a failure, a drifter with theatrical ambitions that come to nothing. They are always short of ready money and in debt, but there is money in the background.
The novel is written mostly from Dorothy‘s point of view, but Perkins switches to Eve whenever it is convenient to do so; one of the most important sections is presented to us through Eve’s eyes, sensibly because this section is her story, not Dorothy’s.
Yet it is also Dorothy’s because it concerns Daniel, the boy from next door who becomes an unofficial member of the family, and who is Dorothy’s first and lifelong love, even though he drops out and disappears from the scene for most of the novel.
There is little plot as such, no more than there is in most lives, just one thing after another, even though, near the end of the book, Perkins springs a couple of surprises on Dorothy, and perhaps on the reader – the kind of surprises, relating to misconceptions of other people, which are at the same time true to experience and also belong to the traditional well-plotted novel. This is good, convincing. Perkins, through Dorothy, reminds us how little we may really know of the inner life of those we think we know well.
The novel is written episodically, allowing us to follow Dorothy through the stages of her life: lively girl, first love, a marriage which is never wholly satisfying and becomes more and more difficult, motherhood, bereavement, a period of depression which takes the form of agoraphobia, recovery, financial difficulties, happy encounters in old age, and then the last days. There are family gatherings, old school reunions, the loosening of bonds which had once seemed firm. It all rings true and is thoroughly imagined.
Yet curiously, though Perkins is very good at tracing and exploring the course of a life, and evoking the passing of time, there is little sense of social change. You feel that any of the episodes might have been set in any of the decades traversed. So, while this is a family novel, it is not a social one.
This may be partly because Perkins does indeed see New Zealand as a classless society. Yet, apart from descriptions of scenery, there is actually no strong sense of New Zealand either. It’s a novel that could be about anywhere. New Zealand is little more than a label stuck to it.
Perkins writes vividly and often beautifully. She is adept at remarking small significant movements which also contrive to represent shifts in emotion or in relations between characters.
Yet sometimes her fondness for simile and metaphor is both obtrusive and distracting. The prose insists on calling attention to itself. It is good prose for freezing moments in time, not so good for narrative. Others will disagree and delight in it. It’s a matter of taste and opinion. Some will agree with what seems to be Perkins’s opinion that a noun is incomplete without an accompanying adjective.
Occasionally however, the lure of the simile leads to nonsense. There’s a scene in which Dorothy becomes alarmed at the sight of her daughter on a skateboard and runs “to the slide, legs chafing, her voice low and betraying panic, as though her daughter was an unleashed Rottweiler”. But she is alarmed for her daughter, not frightened of her as she might be of that Rottweiler running free.
This criticism may appear carping. Yet it’s a pity that enjoyment of an intelligent and perceptive novel should be disturbed by irritation with the author’s aversion to a style suitable for narrative prose.