Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Book review: The White Forest by Adam McOmber

The White ForestThe White Forest by Adam McOmber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Where I got the book: I was offered a free review copy by Simon & Schuster in return for an honest review. Touchstone, the publisher of The White Forest, is a S&S imprint.

***SPOILER ALERT*** I’ve tried very hard not to give the story away, but hints of it may show through in this very long review. I’m really writing for those who have already read the book and want to know what others think about it. So if you’re here because you’re wondering whether to read this novel, you might want to read it first and then come back.

A word about my rating: In many respects, I dislike the star rating system for books. This is one of those moments when trying to rate a book turns my brain into a pretzel as I weigh up the writer’s ability to use prose to create an atmosphere, his fundamental writing skills seen as an art rather than a precise science, whether I found the story’s premise convincing or not AND whether another type of reader, looking for different things in a novel, would either love or hate this book. The White Forest gets four stars because while I had serious issues with some aspects of it, to be fair as a reviewer I have to give the writer credit for the other elements.

The story: Jane leads an isolated life on Hampstead Heath, a wild area of north London. Since the death of her mother when Jane was six, Jane has experienced inanimate objects as animate beings that give off sound, colors, lights, even memories. She can transfer the sensations she feels to other people by touch, and mute their effect on herself by remaining grounded in the natural world (notably by wearing flowers tied to her wrist). Her abilities isolate her from other people—who naturally fear them—and her only friends are Maddy, another of society’s outcasts because she is the daughter of a medium and a disgraced daguerrotype artist, and Nathan, the object of both girls’ yearning. Maddy fears Jane’s “ability” and is jealous of the hold it has over Nathan, who sees Jane as a way to reach an otherworldly place they call the Empyrean. When Nathan disappears into a cult society to which his search for the Empyrean has led him, Maddy and Jane work to bring him back, both together and in competition.

What I liked about the novel: To begin with, it was well-written—good dialogue, vivid descriptions, nice pacing and so on. I noted a couple of spelling/grammar snafus in passing (like someone being in the “throws” of some sort of dilemma) but these days that’s usually due to overworked, short-staffed editing departments. And the writing had depth to it; I found myself caught up in wondering if Jane was a reliable narrator or a deluded hysteric (bring on the hysterical Victorian ladies!) and transfixed by the sexual imagery of Jane as the doorway (something to be opened and explored), the stag, the hole in the tree, the red dress, the animals in the white forest…toward the end I began to see the story as an allegory of sexual frustration, a woman taking power over the physical world in a desperate effort to reach fulfillment. And there was the more overt theme of the imbalance of the male power of technology with the female power of the natural world; all very interesting and thought-provoking, although I struggled to find a structure to the narrative that would make it clear what the author thought about these matters. Possibly—since this is a debut novel—the inchoate impression I received is due to the author grasping for half-formed themes that will be worked out in later writings. Given the amount of vapid fluff that makes up about 80% of novel writing, I should be glad to see a writer with some ballast in his brainbox, right?

Where I had issues: Early on in this novel I began to wonder which decade of the Victorian era we were in. Those who follow my reviews may know that I’m not generally a stickler for historical accuracy and will accept that an author may, for the sake of the story, alter an event or a place from time to time. In my own writing I like to invent locations, and I love the world-building elements in the fantasy sub-genres when done right. I was tickled to death, for example, when in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter the reason given for Lincoln’s determination to win over the Confederacy was that those darn Southerners were EVUL VAMPIRES. The preposterousness of the premise made it obvious that the filmmakers had little regard for the historical record and therefore I could sit back and enjoy the movie without a care in the world about accuracy (although others do care, and the list of goofs for this movie on IMDb makes entertaining reading).

So why did The White Forest turn me into the History Police? It began, as I said above, because I started to wonder when, exactly, this story was unfolding. Chapter 1 is subheaded, unhelpfully or is it teasingly? “Hampstead Heath, 18—“ and much of the tone of the story seemed to indicate that it was set in the very late 19th century, after 1885, say. References to, for example, dream theory and the New Woman sounded very fin-de-siècle.

Flipping to the Author’s Note revealed only that he admitted to not moving the Crystal Palace to its post-1854 location, but nothing else. So what was niggling at me? Then I realized that Nathan had just returned from the Crimean War, dating the novel to around 1857—and that pretty much all other checkable references were therefore anachronistic (see my updates for details). Including the snortable fact that Inspector Vidocq, who comes to London to investigate Nathan’s disappearance, died in 1857 so must in fact have been a zombie detective, not a bad idea when I come to think of it: Sherlock Holmes, Zombie Sleuth might be a worthy contribution to the recent spate of mashups aimed at bored kids who despise history and literature anyway. Can’t be much worse than the Robert Downey Jr. version. Harrumph.

But I digress, and heaven knows this review is long enough without the digressions. At some point while I was merrily pointing out the anachronisms on Goodreads the author contacted me and cheerfully admitted that he was playing with the historical record. And yes, I knew going in that this was supposed to be a Gothic fantasy novel. I felt that a fantasy reader looking purely for the thrill of strange theories and weird happenings might have no problem with the anachronisms, and actually I’d rather like comments from readers with a taste for fantasy based in the past—what bookfriend Ashley called "...historically-influenced fantasy as opposed to simply fiction set in an historical period with some small fantastical elements."

So can a Gothic story ignore the rules of historical fiction? The best quote I could find about Gothic novels was by critic Ellen Moers, who said, “But what I mean -- or anyone else means -- by "the Gothic" is not so easily stated except that it has to do with fear. In Gothic writings fantasy predominates over reality, the strange over the commonplace, and the supernatural over the natural, with one definite auctorial intent: to scare.” I have read very little by H.P. Lovecraft (to be honest, I can’t stand Cthulhu) but I did recognize this novel as Lovecraftian, “a sub-genre of horror fiction which emphasizes the cosmic horror of the unknown (in some cases, unknowable) over gore or other elements of shock, though these may still be present.” So we’re talking about writing in which the emphasis is on creating a certain atmosphere and eliciting chills by putting the reader imaginatively in touch with a supernatural world, and The White Forest does this pretty well.

On the other hand, this novel is packaged so as to attract the historical fiction reader, although the cover of my copy—a Blair Witchy “trees in the night” design—is less overtly HF than the original back-view-of-Victorian-chick motif. And indeed it first came to my attention because it was being added to the lists of HF readers. Now, the readers of historical fiction tend to expect a certain level of trust in their authors; they want to feel that said authors have at least tried to locate their story within a certain historical framework and gone to some effort to ensure, if not “accuracy” (a slippery word when applied to history—for example, the discovery of the Mary Rose in England radically changed many ideas about life in Tudor times), at least plausibility. The debate about historical accuracy in fiction just never dies, as the recent flood of writing about the televised version of Philippa Gregory’s Cousins’ War books shows, and I’m constantly coming across great writing about where fact ends and imagination begins and how genres such as steampunk deliberately manipulate the past to the delight of readers.

Some readers get extremely upset about novelists altering history to suit their own purposes, especially when they imbue real historical people with traits—often negative—that readers do not think they had COUGHCOUGHPHILIPPAGREGORY. While writing this review I followed a Facebook thread about how casual (i.e. historically uninformed—HF readers tend to be smug about this) viewers of Gregory’s series now believe Edward of Lancaster was a rapist and this is WRONG! The past, many readers feel, is not the novelist’s private playground; these were real people who lived and died, sometimes horribly, and did or did not love their wives—they are, in fact, us, and how would we feel if a novelist misrepresented us in all our glorious complexity? So the argument goes that any writer who attempts to set his or her work in a defined historical era must try to be true to that era’s history and the psychological makeup of its people.

So when a writer like McOmber begins to play around with the historical timeline, some readers may be incensed. For many of the HF readers I know, anachronisms are a dealbreaker. So my next thought is, can the same be said of the readers of literary fiction? Because The White Forest could also be dropped into that bookshelf due to the quality of the writing and its themes AND the fact that it doesn’t fit perfectly with either historical fiction or fantasy. I find myself wondering if the new cover (and the fact that it has a reading group guide) is an attempt to push the novel in that direction.

I feel I’ve spent way more time on this novel than I really should, but it has certainly raised some interesting questions. Reading being the incredibly subjective art that it is, many of those questions will never receive satisfactory answers, and I’m the last person to suggest that writers should be bound and gagged by a set of rules. In particular, I want to see new writers explore and struggle, and I think that’s what I’m seeing here. Some writers decide they are going to write in a specific genre, learn the rules of that genre thoroughly and then apply them rigorously. That’s a pretty quick way to commercial success if you also have some talent, but to my mind it’s not doing the craft of writing—or the writer—any favors. I read many, many, many HF books where the writer has applied the “formula”—beats, acts, layering, short sentences, blah blah blah—with greater or lesser success, but somehow that formula always shows through like black paint under white. I have a great deal of time for writers who write what they want to, and damn the consequences. I will therefore be looking out for what McOmber does next.

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