The Forrests

I'm ashamed to say how long ago it's been since my friend Penni lent me Emily Perkins' The Forrests. 'It's good,' she assured me, and it was.

A novel in short scenes, each chapter tells an incident from a life, the life of Dorothy Forrest, from her chaotic, slip-shod childhood, through marriage and children and love and lust and tragedy, all the way to her deathbed. The stories of her siblings, parents, children, friends, weave in and out of the central story. We jump several years at a time; suddenly there are extra children, retrospectively we learn of catastrophe narrowly escaped, or brutally, unexpectedly falling, a blade from the sky.

The writing is extraordinary, dense with observation and sensory detail that reads almost like poetry. It's a reminder that even the most ordinary of days contains droplets of wonder, humour, memory and pathos. The thread that pulls the story together is Dorothy's lifelong connection to Daniel, the sort-of brother who became her secret lover and then ran away. Even when he spends decades absent from her life, his memory haunts her.

Perkins is very good on siblings, and children, and marriage -- I don't know how old she is, she doesn't seem to be that old, but her observations of how it feels to be inside every stage of life feel true, as if she's lived a long life and remembered everything. The book is set in New Zealand, but the details feel true of an Australian life, too -- suburban shops, a night in a hospital, a boozy reunion, a commune in the bush.

So, Penni, you can have it back now. Sorry it took me so long.

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