Review: The Forrests by Emily Perkins

by Louise O'Brien / 02 June, 2012
Our reviewer’s verdict on this month’s Book Club choice.
Since the publication of her first book of short stories in 1996, Emily Perkins’s work has been well-hyped and equally well-acclaimed. What everyone seems to know about her fourth and latest novel, The Forrests, is that it’s been tipped to win the Man Booker Prize, although the longlist isn’t announced until July. And, actually, it really is that good. The Forrests begins in the late 1960s when the newly impoverished Forrest family move from New York City to Westmere, Auckland.

Dorothy’s story begins with her at age seven, growing up with two sisters, growing away from her brother and towards her magnetic foster brother. She spends time at a wimmin’s commune, falls in and out of love, gets a job and then a vocation, marries, has children, adores them, sees them leave her and grow old, while growing old herself. Although the context is always the Forrest family and its web of ever-changing relationships, Dot is the centre of the story. Her aesthetic and emotional sensibility – her sometimes unbearable sensitivity to the physical world around her – permeates the book.

For Dot notices things, she “lives her life on the inside” and, after several self-help books and an excruciating workshop, she learns to “daily, in amongst all of the yeah everything, […] be consciously grateful”. Perkins’s earlier books tend to feature characters who seek, often desperately, to avoid or escape the predictable patterns of middle-aged suburban life. This novel is more mature, as are its characters, and predictability hasn’t turned out to be such a dreadful fate after all. In fact, The Forrests is a celebration of the ordinary life, lived intensely. Here, it is the extremely ordinary – the extra-ordinary – that is the truly extraordinary. There’s little in the plot that could be called dramatic, for the real drama is found in the everyday, and the everyday is elevated to become the action of the novel.

The intensity of Dot’s everyday experience is matched by the intensity of the prose. The writing lingers lovingly over the sensory minutiae of sound, smell, colour and movement, the story slowed right down by lengthy and highly detailed description that combines the colloquial with the lyrical – the everyday and the extraordinary – in startling ways. Dot’s grounding in the fullness of the present is likewise echoed in the narrative structure. For despite the comprehensive cradle-to-grave scope of the story arc, the novel skips through time from moment to moment. Some of those moments are the significant and standard fare of fiction – death, birth, revelation – yet many more are mundane – dressing a child, swimming at the public pool, trimming a hedge, walking. And they matter equally: these moments constitute Dot’s life and the memory of her life.

In the gaps between these narrative snapshots, years pass, people die, children arrive and leave, relationships change and deteriorate. These gaps are bridged by recurring motifs, objects and memories, and by the reader’s own impulse to construct what Perkins calls “the story of a life”, imposing a patterned continuity of narrative and identity that the novel suggests may be either artificial or unnecessary. And so we see Dot sometimes carping, at times overweight or too eager for a drink, sometimes frustrated, confused, fearful; just as often she is loving, kind, smart, brave, unconventional. But none of these moments define her; they are fragments in a montage, a collation that constitutes a rich and full life, a life we cannot ever wholly know.

Dot’s warmth and joy are what carry the reader through the story, but it’s the thoughtful exploration of notions of identity, selfhood and – yes! – the meaning of life and the meaning in a life that last well beyond the final page. The Forrests is a simply wonderful book.

THE FORRESTS, by Emily Perkins (Bloomsbury Circus, $36.99).

Louise O’Brien is a Wellington reviewer.

Click here to read our interview with author Emily Perkins.

Click here read the Book Club discussion about The Forrests.


You can still join the conversation about The Forrests. Visit the Book Club section of, follow the Twitter account @nzlbookclub and hashtag #nzlbookclub, or go to the Facebook page New Zealand Listener Book Club.

Next month’s Book Club choice is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall sequel, Bring Up the Bodies (Fourth Estate, $37.99). Activities kick off with an interview with Mantel on June 1.
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