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‘The Forrests’, Emily Perkins, The FT Weekend

A backpacker Heathcliff, wielding charm rather than fists’

The Forrests is only Emily Perkins’ fourth novel in 14 years. Once again, it is worth the wait and once again Perkins is pushing herself as a writer.

Spiky, absurd humour tattooed her short story collection Not Her Real Name and her first novel, in 1998, Leave Before You Go. Her novels then became more serious: The New Girl studied raw, vulnerable adolescence; madness fractured a marriage in Novel About My Wife. In The Forrests, Perkins tackles a family’s progress from the 1960s to the 2030s, from childhood to senility, with no shortcut date headings or framing flashbacks, and does so superbly.

It opens in 1967, with the Forrests’ move from New York to New Zealand (Auckland, Perkins’ home city). The father, Frank, has high hopes of succeeding as a theatre director. He doesn’t. His wife Lee works at a deli, ekes out Frank’s meagre trust fund and sells off family heirlooms to feed the children. They are, in descending age, Michael, Eve, Dot and Ruth. Michael’s friend Daniel lives with the Forrests, sheltering from his broken home.

After three fruitless years, Frank tries his luck in New York and Lee temporarily moves the family into a “wimmin’s commune”. The children run wild but the sexual advances of an adult communard, Rena, destabilise Michael for life. Frank returns a sterner man but, luckless in New York and unwilling to take workaday work, his authority ebbs. Michael closes himself into his own dope-addled world. Frank inherits a pot of Forrest family fortune and returns to America to live in moneyed ease with Lee and young Ruth.

The Forrests becomes the story of Eve, Dot and Daniel finding their way alone, scraping through careers, unremembered at school reunions. Twisting through the sisters lives, Daniel disappears around the world, and then returns – still magnetic and enigmatic with “the terrifying agelessness of the constant traveller”.

He is Dorothy’s lover then, secretly, Eve’s, then, occasionally, Dorothy’s again. His bond to the family makes these relationships disturbingly close, obsessive and disruptive, like a backpacker Heathcliff wielding charm rather than fists. Both sisters marry and have children but are burdened by the hope of hearing from Daniel.

The story tightens its focus on Dot, struggling as marriage, family and motherhood swirl around her. “Adulthood was like this – your voice calm, your face normal, while inside white turmoil squirted, your heart still seven, or twelve, or fifteen.” Michael reappears, obese and paranoid; Ruth too, a corporate wife; Rena, hoping to make amends.

Perkins glides us through the decades with unobtrusive nods to disco, the Walkman, the internet, today’s recession and seamlessly into a future of battling gangs and receding pensions. This isn’t faultless. Dot appears prematurely decrepit at 50 (to this 50 year-old reviewer anyway) and becomes dotty too young. But Dot’s dotage, jumbled mind bemused by her body, memories and care home, is brilliantly done.

The Forrests is rich and its chapters so self-contained they could be read as 20 short stories. But pay attention: Perkins is concise and quietly allusive. Misread a sentence and you miss a jump in time. Pass over a dialogue comma and you won’t understand. Perkins makes us puzzle out the characters’ lives, because they are doing so too.

What defines The Forrests more though is the tapestry of description that startles on every page, the fine-stitched details of the family’s world that give the Forrests value and importance, and the novel a profound empathy.

2 June 2012

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