Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Review: The Forest, by Edward Rutherfurd

If nothing else, I want this to be a testament that I do, in fact, every once in a while, remember things and eventually get around to them. The Forest was a reading recommendation back four or five years ago, in a context I've forgotten, from one of the (unintentionally neglected) quiet friends, and it's one of those which has been hanging onto the back end of the list since that time. I do so appreciate reading suggestions, and a belated thanks for it.

England's New Forest is a patch of woods and towns on the southern shore of the island opposite the Isle of Wight, a boggy and largely open woodland falling off the southeastern edge of the Salisbury plain to the sea. The people living there today, picking up on Rutherfurd's subtext, exist in a kind of cheerful state of anachronism, protective of the natural beauty and remaining medieval spirit of the area, and just maybe laying it on a little extra for the tourists. In the novel, Rutherfurd traces that old spirit forward in a series of set stories, placed every couple hundred years starting shortly after the Norman invasion, following generations of a handful of families, and weaving their lives into historical events that took place in the area.

The New Forest itself was surprisingly hard for me to wrap my mind around. It's small for one thing, about 15 miles across it's longest diagonal, hardly a nip out of north central Massachusetts where I live, which has a similar density of people and trees, and smaller than the couple of national forests you'll find in New England. And Rutherfurd, really oddly to my mind, doesn't describe it as very forest-like. It's strange to me that he focuses most of his descriptive energy on the open spaces in the woods--the heaths and plains--sometimes on individual trees, sometimes on houses and towns and shores, but for a novel that's titled The Forest, I hardly ever get the feeling of being in the woods. I kind of expected the setting to be pulled up to the level a ubiquitous extra character, and I expected to encounter some lyricism in the description. As a dork who's devoured some quantity of fantasy, I've read a pretty good number of writers who really try to evoke this kind of primeval magic (it's exactly what they ever do well), and it's as if Rutherfurd doesn't know he's competing against them (aaand iiiit's... Tolkien! with yards to spare).

Instead it's character and plot that tend to sustain the thing. Family characteristics are preserved, but varied, across the years, and the substories are novella-length almost entirely self-contained. They are not especially deep and thoughtful stories, but he has a good ear for the sometimes everyday drama of human affairs--love, death, friendship, family--which, when they are put up against the bigger historical drama (the killing of William Rufus (son of the Conqueror), and especially the trial of Alice Lisle at the time of the Restoration) adds compelling dimension to these events. There are a couple of tokens that pass through the storylines, but it's not extensive, and it's unfortunately not subtle. (In fact, Rutherfurd has a way of occasionally stepping without warning from a contemporary point of view into a sort of modern narrator voiceover, which doesn't officially stray into anachronism, but is nonetheless a little jarring until you get used to it. And I didn't need him, for example, to put his hand on my back and explicitly remind me who carved that letter A. It was his more touching plot, not so long back. I remembered it.) With the small plots and subplots, the repeating character types, it all comes off strangely like a well-written TV miniseries, and although it's 750 pages long, it reads quite fast.

There is theme of permanence in the novel. The families' status and success drifts over the centuries, but we are following, basically, archetypal gentry, commoners, functionaries, and other sorts, all of fairly ancient origins. A considerable amount of text is given over to how the administration of the forest operates, relatively autonomously, as a system of inherited and variously bargained resource rights. It seems a very English notion of environmental preservation, the way in which roles and rights are designated by class, and accepted by them, where each is of equal worth, but clearly different status. If there's a little breeding and occasional friction between castes, we are still unable to imagine the barely domesticated Puckles, the lowest commoners, doing the kind of job the Albions do. They're every one of them slaves to their heredity, and I personally find the idea pretty damn unsavory. If America is hindered by the tatters of its 17th century vestments too, questions of heredity and class form the running argument of our own imported culture, an embattled rebuke to the English style, but one which, like the notions of rebellious children, doesn't actually stray as far from that set of ideas. We clearly abandoned the attendant notions of land sustainability though, and maybe it takes centuries of habit to find a stable equilibrium between culture and environment.  Harder to come by when both the trees and the old families on these lands get razed to the ground every once in a while.

8 comments:

Aaron said...

Sounds interesting, but sadly, I don't have much time for reading anything new these days. Think that it's on audio?

Keifus said...

Maybe. I think it's one that would translate pretty well to other media.

David Marlow said...

Damn.

Keifus said...

God damn the pusher man?

David Marlow said...

Lotta people walkin round with tombstones in their eyes?
I used to read a lot more than I do now. You just consistently remind of yet another one of my... Shortcomings. It's a good thing, I'm pretty sure.

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