Top positive review
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Extraordinary but frustrating
on 28 July 2012
This is an odd book. At the outset, it promises the scrutiny of an idiosyncratic family, the way the individuals in that family develop, reproduce, age and, in some cases, die. It concentrates mostly on the minutiae of their lives, and jumps across time and space with alacrity. I could have done with a family tree, as I found it hard to know who was who, even, or especially - as offspring arrive - towards the end. I could also have done with more 'in depth' characterisation. I can't blame the author for this as her novel seems to have been deliberately constructed to provide a subtle, incredibly detailed montage of the superficial. It's not that her characters lack depth so much as are out of their depth; and the author clearly doesn't want us to be privy to what they don't know themselves, or if they do, don't like to think about. It feels as if, being closed off to each other, they have to remain closed off to us, too. Their behaviour is examined with searing precision; but we learn remarkably little of the thought processes behind it.
Essentially, the book is a series of moving tableaux, some in extraordinary detail, of episodes of ordinariness, punctuated by only occasional drama. I was left knowing more about the Forrest family as a disparate entity, thinly spread across two continents, stumbling through life, achieving little, than about any one of them as individuals. Maybe this was simply how they were. It certainly reflected their family dynamic of making less of a mark on the world than on each other.
There is little joy in this story, and a lot of quiet desperation. Although I prefer novelists knowing (and sharing) more about their characters than those characters know about themselves, so I can learn about each participant in depth, and understand why they act as they do, it is impossible to fault this book, which does none of these things. As others have mentioned, the writing is first rate, the observation chillingly precise, and the author certainly achieves what she set out to do, if that is to show that much of life happens without us knowing why, we are powerless to stop it, and that this does not make us happy.