Former leading New Zealand publisher and bookseller, and widely experienced judge of both the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Montana New Zealand Book Awards, talks about what he is currently reading, what impresses him and what doesn't, along with chat about the international English language book scene, and links to sites of interest to booklovers.
Monday, May 07, 2012
Metro, Auckland city's outstanding magazine - issue of May 2012
Metro is a magazine that all book-loving, foodie Aucklanders should subscribe to. Every month when it arrives in the mail
I devour it from cover to cover. The current May issue is the best of all
because it is the annual “Best Restaurants” issue and in addition there are
some seven pages given over to books.
In addition to the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival-related material on these Books pages (material on and/or by
Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, Michael Corballis, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jolisa
Gracewood, Stephanie Johnson, Greg McGee, Gordon McLauchlan and Emily Perekins),
there is also Sarah Laing’s wonderful comic strip up front, Ruth Spencer’s
piece on food in American and her Day Tripper column, and a review and other
arts commentary by Josie McNaught. And, of course, a bit of advice for
festival-goers on where to get a damn good meal.
The highlight though of all of this
treasure is the stunning review by Simon Wilson of Emily Perkins’ new novel The Forrests
Wilson is of course Metro’s editor and is a
wordsmith from way back. He doesn’t do a lot of book reviewing, restaurants are
his pet subject, but I reckon this review is a beautifully crafted and
well-written example of the reviewing art. He has kindly agreed to make the
review available to the blog which those outside Metro’s distribution area can
have the chance to read it. Here it is.
Life in the woods - The
condition of life is to fail, and to lose, and yet to love and be loved.
THE FORRESTS - Emily
Perkins (Bloomsbury, $36.99)
The great, great strength of the book is this:
you’re locked in an intensely realised moment with the protagonist, Dorothy
Forrest, also known as Dot and Dottie, you do not know how that moment is going
to end, and the dread just fills you up. Pre-event drinks at a school reunion.
Making dinner in a ski hut. Chatting by the pool, on holiday. Meeting a friend.
Meeting your mother.
So you sit there on the edge of your seat,
reading carefully through each episode so as not to miss the significance of
every little thing and you do not know: will this moment turn to heartbreak?
Humiliation? Joy? Is the world about to shift on its axis or is this just
Welcome to life, in among the Forrests, where
they know about the loss that accompanies every love after the first love, the
endless disappointment of putting yourself out in the world, the anxiety of
parenthood. All the time, the anxiety of parenthood.
It’s a high-stakes game for a writer, keeping
intensity like this going all the way through a novel, because it’s exhausting
for the reader. Emily Perkins knows how to get over that: she has her
characters seduce us. They slip onto the page wreathed in mystery and sometimes
also charm, and you want and need to know more.
The stakes are also high when all the information
is systematically hidden between the lines. Perkins lets characters die, betray
each other in love, miss their big chances in life so tragically that all else
seems ruined, and she never tells you, in so many words, any of it.
Handling subtext this formally, without it just
sounding like a writing exercise, is very hard. Virginia Woolf showed the way,
especially with The Waves, and that — I’m serious about this — is the company Emily Perkins
keeps with this book.
There’s more. Like Woolf, Perkins has characters
who take a sly delight in subverting social expectation, and is in love with
language. “Sunlight badoinged off storefronts’ plated glass,” she writes, and
you go badoinging yourself, right off the sentence and around the room.
The Forrest family arrives here from New York when sisters
Dorothy and Evelyn are still children. Their mother is distracted, their father
even more so. We follow Dorothy through episodes from her family life — she is
a contemporary of Perkins herself, who is now in her 40s, and who imbues
Dorothy with much that feels personal, before projecting ahead, tipping her
deep into middle age and out again.
Perkins inhabits the young adult versions of the
sisters, in particular, with a palpable infatuation. They are fey, pretty,
acutely attuned to the moment and to themselves in the moment, and we to them.
Their husbands, on the other hand, are obliquely
sketched. They barely speak, we’re never in their heads, they’re unknown and it
feels like this is because they are unknowable — even to their wives. That
casts a sheen of grief over the relationships, and the women don’t exactly seem
to think it’s wrong. It just is. These men and women co-exist, taking pleasure
in each other, inflicting pain, holding each other near to but not exactly in
Late in life, Dorothy is told something she
didn’t know that has defined her entire extended family. It changes her
appreciation of her parents, but more so of herself. She had assumed — and we
with her — that she was the functional adult at the Forrests’ emotional and
moral core. Actually, she was so peripheral she didn’t know what was really
This isn’t a life measured in evenly arranged
teaspoons. There’s little of old age. Only one thing really matters: the great
glancing blow of love, which Dot experiences once and reels from ever after.
Her Daniel is a cipher, never brought close to
us even in the most intimate moments. He is there for all of us: our secret
life, the lover we weren’t supposed to have, the life we weren’t supposed to
lead, and didn’t, and couldn’t lead.
There is an episode where Dot, lost in a state
of motherhood that has overwhelmed her, made her fat and agoraphobic, invites a
young man into her house. You know it could end very badly, and you read on in
dread, but what she does is offer a moment of friendship to this vulnerable
stranger, and it helps her deal with her own desperation. It’s just a thing in
the mess of a life, but it’s also a profound affirmation of humanism.
And yet, life is failure, accident, collapse, a
withering. We survive, until we don’t. That should make this a novel of great
despair. It doesn’t, though, because there is rapture, in moments, and it
wouldn’t make sense if rapture was all there is.
Already, influential British types are talking
about this as a Booker winner. If there’s justice in the book prize world,
which there often isn’t, it will be in the running.
The Bookman endorses Simon Wilson’s admiration for the
book. It is unquestionably literary fiction of a very high order which has
already received widespread admiration from reviewers around the world.
Although it is a hugely accomplished work, clearly Perkins’ best work to date,
and will almost certainly achieve recognition by way of awards, I have to say
that for me personally the lack of joy and hope in the book meant that I didn’t
especially enjoy reading it. When I finished the book my thought was – poor
I should also add that there is an excellent
two-page long interview with Emily Perkins in this same issue of Metro
conducted by Jolisa Gracewood. Much of it is about the novel and I found it