It may be a witticism – given its manifold grittiness, its oysterish, tight-lipped, tough on the outside imperviousness to sentiment – that nestling at the heart of this almost-novel is a heroine called Pearl.
Reasons She Goes to the Woods
by Deborah Kay Davies
Oneworld, 249pp, £14.99
Every episode of Pearl’s tale is one page long. There are 121 of them. Between each is a simple headline page, a two- or three-word trailer to what is to come. These almost-blank pages are essential. The intensity of Pearl’s narrative is so concentrated, and focused, that escaping it, if only for a moment, permits the reader to reflect, digest and ponder.
Pearl’s is a story that breeds in darkness. It thrives on secrets, hints and whispers. Its pulse is steady, sending out signals from its first sentence: “Pearl is perched astride her father’s knee … She plays with his sleep-soft hands, placing them on her cheeks … From the place pressed against her father’s knee she feels a rippling sensation move through her body, as if a delicate, frilled mushroom were expanding, elongating, filling her up.’
Pearl’s age is uncertain. During the course of the book it advances by more than a decade, into puberty, Pearl’s mid-teens. Her bond with her father forms the spine of her emotional development. She is active; he is passive. As she grows older we see her preening for his approval. Her senses sharpen in his presence. The complication, of course, is her mother, to whom his devotion never wavers.
Soon Pearl is riding the weeping willow in the woods. “She pats the bucking trunk and grips with her thighs.” Later, she slides to the stream below: “As the lovely water laps her ears and throat, moves inside her shorts, slips across her fragile ribs”, Pearl grins, “raising her arms to the just-glimpsed sky”. These, we are told, are “some of the reasons she comes to the woods”.
The other main reason is to escape, often alone, to become an incubus of the pleasures nature offers. At other times she comes with friends who do her bidding – pliant Fee, the admiring Honey, and later Will, who is less abashed – escaping there into the furling embrace of the trees, escaping too Pearl’s troubled, unpredictable mother. At home The Blob – her baby brother – is Pearl’s one amusement.
She rolls him downstairs in his shawl-cocoon; she gouges scissors into his skin. She repulses Fee, punching her stomach, screaming just like the wayward mother, a skin-deep beauty, who from time to time disappears, receiving treatment for the “madness”.
Through the narrowed lens of the most exact and ticking prose, we watch Pearl advance into the intensifying duel with her mother, her coy, seductive moves on her father; we feel the wind blow through her friendships, seeing innocence and instinct – pre-sexual intimacies with Will – become gratuitous.
Deborah Kay Davies, as she did in her debut novel, True Things About Me, orchestrates everything, so that, as lives on the page fall apart, the author’s control becomes even more strict. Her continuous use of the present tense abets this, making what happens feel spontaneous.
The central characters are alive, disturbed, disturbing, moving into and out of the constantly shifting scenery: the great, tangled outdoors which mirror Pearl’s untramelled urges; the contrasting indoor furnishings, all glints and unyielding hard edges, evoking the less than homely home which ‘feels like an empty two-story fridge.’
Like some monochrome rainbow, Pearl’s fortunes follow their given arc – we see both its ending, and its beginning, from almost any point in the journey: the arduous climb towards longed-for escape and love’s consummation, the slide towards a finish where what is buried isn’t gold but hope and belonging.
The final page is almost a cliché, a spiky echo of Angela Carter, with whom Ms Davies at her best stands fair comparison.
If not quite a pearl, Pearl’s story has lustre. The language is fresh, the imagery striking. Pearl’s adoration of her father is one of the several versions of love the book explores, and Pearl herself is a rampant, compelling, fully-realised, wild-eyed, teary creation.