Dorothy and Evelyn, the sisters at the heart of Emily Perkins’s novel The Forrests, are so close in age and similar in appearance they’re mistaken for twins and confused for each other in their new school in Auckland. The girls have just arrived with their family — father, Frank, mother, Lee, older brother, Michael, and younger sister, Ruth — from New York, escaping, Dorothy presumes, family disappointment and money troubles. But even in their new home town, Frank has trouble finding work, and the family survives on an allowance from relatives in the US. When Frank returns to America three years later, Michael, Evelyn, Dorothy and Ruth have gained a brother: a lost boy, Daniel, who finds respite from his own troubled family life in the chaotic Forrest household.
After Frank’s departure, Lee takes the children, including Daniel, to a women’s commune, where they spend blissful weeks running wild. It’s a powerful time for the children; they learn about themselves and each other and about the strangeness of adult lives. But their world becomes further confused when Frank returns to whisk his family back to their Auckland home. Lee and the children leave the commune behind but they are changed in ways that will haunt the rest of their lives.
In The Forrests, Perkins has created characters and relationships that are complex and fascinating. Dorothy and Evelyn grow up with the strongest of bonds but this is tested by the secrets they keep from each other. Michael fades from his family’s, and the reader’s, view; he becomes a presence at the edge of family life and his wellbeing is a weight on his siblings’ hearts. Ruth returns with her parents to the US, becoming a stranger to her siblings and their adult lives. Daniel, the wanderer, weaves himself so tightly into the Forrests’ lives they become enthralled by him; his presence or absence capable of both alienating and reuniting the family.
Emily Perkins’s skill in this novel is in her depiction of the lifelong tug of family: the one you come from and the one you make; the disappointments and delights, the drudgery and the duty. The truth at the core of The Forrests is the inexorableness of families, and Dorothy’s and Evelyn’s experiences, more so than any other characters, exemplify this — it is family they seek when in trouble and family they flee in an attempt to make their own way in the world.
… she could never, never tell Dot. How to know whether the secrecy – really the lying – came from love, or shame, or the sheer envy of having been the one left out by those two for all that time?They’d never talked about it but she knew, like she knew about Michael being a pot fiend …
Perkins’s matter-of-fact writing style brings immediacy to the Forrests’ lives and takes readers right into the heart of the characters and their situations. Her use of the roaming viewpoint is impressive, helping to smooth the passing of many years in the space of a few chapters. However, the deftness of her writing is not cold, nor is it bereft of compelling images:
At that moment the band started playing a song from when she was fifteen, a song her body heard before her brain did. The music was like lying on the runway as a jumbo jet took off just above you, scraping the air.
The Forrests is a fascinating study of what it means to be part of a family and how individuals experience the tangle of relationships differently even within the same family. Perkins masterfully deals with the secrets her characters choose to keep and the compromises they make, never shying away from their emotions or the consequences of their decisions. It’s an eloquent and moving tale of a family’s life that narrows its focus to eventually show us the effect on just one family member, Dorothy. It is through Dorothy that we ultimately see how the people we let into our lives shape us.
Emily Perkins The Forrests, Bloomsbury, 2012, PB, 352pp, $29.99
Kylie Mason is a freelance book editor who lives in Sydney.
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