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The Forest Dwellers
on 5 December 2012
The Forest Dwellers chronicles the lives of the common people 11 years after the Battle of Hastings. The Normans not only conquered Harold, they pillaged the land and subjugated the people.
The forest dwellers have lived in the forest for generations, growing crops, hunting small animals and building homesteads. William has decided the forest is solely his, for his hunting pleasure. The fences surrounding crops are torn down, berries and acorns are forbidden foods, firewood and turf for warmth is prohibited and, most important to the king, hunting wildlife or fishing is the greatest transgression. Hunting dogs large enough to run down venison must have their front claws and fangs removed.
All in all, the forest dwellers are reduced to extreme poverty, hunger, misery, living in hovels and the constant threat of the Normans destroying what little they have.
There is one common thread that runs through The Forest Dwellers: Alys. The daughter of a charcoal burner, she is rescued by brothers from certain rape by Normans. Leo, the oldest brother and head of the household, kills two of the Normans attacking her. They take her home to her father. Not longer after, she shows up at the brothers' holding and there she remains, saying her father was taken by the Normans for poaching.
Alys is different from other girls in the forest. She has blonde hair, beauty, the lithe body of a young girl and a sensuality she knows how to optimize. She captivates all the brothers' attention but saves her attentions for Leo. Alys is a practical girl, knowing her body and sensual skills are her best options for survival. Abused by her father, she expects no different from any other man. In fact, she purposely chooses her lovers based on what side of the bread the butter is lathered. The Forest Dwellers begins and ends with Alys.
The Normans, refusing to give up their quest for the slayer of the two would-be rapists, eventually discover Leo is the culprit and come to arrest him. Fortunately, Leo is not home at the time, however, the youngest, AElf, and Alys, are and must survive on their own. In their flight from the Normans, AElf and Alys leave behind another 2 dead Normans, along with another bleeding and presumably not long for the world. They have left the king's son, Richard, to die. A brother leads AElf and Alys, with their meager possessions, deep into the forest to an encampment of dispossessed forest dwellers. Leo eventually finds them.
A plan is hatched to regain their lands from the Normans, but the forest dwellers are untrained fighters and lack equipment. The outcome is inexorable. The Normans win the battle, defeating the forest dwellers lead by Leo, handily. AElf's brothers perish, with Leo dragged off the field by a bolting horse. Alys and AElf are all that remain to each other when the Normans inevitably claim the rebellers as slaves.
Not is all as it seems in The Forest Dwellers. There are hidden truths and personal agendas. Disagreements over loyalty strain relationships. Distrust is rampant and near impossible to overcome. Such are the lives of The Forest Dwellers under the rule of the Normans.
The Forest Dwellers is written in an unusual method, through the first person point of view of various characters. At times when a new character takes over the story, there will be a repetition of previous events from that character's point of view. Sometimes, the new character simply carries on with the story.
For me, the plot felt disjointed by the overlapping or changing point of views. It was difficult to become engaged by any one particular character, as he or she was not on the stage long. After realizing the entire novel was written in this manner, I stopped attempting to get into a character's psyche. This is a tough plot device to pull off successfully. I've read a few other novels written in the same fashion and finished feeling the same way: somewhat ripped off because I never had the opportunity to get to know any one character indepth.
Judith Arnopp is an excellent writer, but her skill could not overcome the plot disparity.