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An Instant Classic
on 18 February 2013
It's strange to think that, under the right conditions, humans can revert back to the wild state our ancestors worked so hard to detach civilised society from. After all, we still have the tools; keen eyesight and hearing, a decent sense of smell and a predators' ability to problem solve, we just fail to utilise them, or simply employ them in different ways. And regressing to the wild-side is exactly what happens in Into That Forest; stranded in the Tasmanian wilderness, two young girls, Hannah and Becky, are adopted by a pair of Tasmanian tigers and spend the subsequent four years learning to hunt, read the outback and generally live as wild animals.
As the girls integrate themselves with their new parents, they lose the use of English, instead opting to employ the grunts, snarls and body language of the tigers. They also disregard their clothes and reject the two-limbed approach to running. The harsh realities of the wilderness also start to stimulate the girls' animal instincts; they begin to give into the passion of the hunt and even develop a taste for warm blood and raw flesh ‒ there are no punches pulled here, this is a full and, at times, brutal transformation.
The book is narrated from the perspective of a seventy-six-year-old version of Hannah (in a slightly non-standard English) as she looks back on her time with the tigers. However, this doesn't take away from the deeply absorbing plot, far from it. The events are described in such a way that a subtle sense of foreboding begins to infiltrate the text, and this foreboding is realised in a series of heart-wrenching events beginning around the book's halfway point, and culminating in the devastatingly effective ending.
A central theme is the concept of wilderness, or, more specifically, the question: once the wilderness is inside you, can you ever truly leave it behind? But there are other themes at play too, perhaps most notably the effect of loss (Hannah loses her parents early on and the tigers adopt the girls having been robbed of their own cubs) and these themes intertwine wonderfully, inferring the novel's ultimate question: if you lose something precious, would you want it back even if it's changed?
Often with a novel like this, it's the portrayal of the animals that can be the let down ‒ they can be too Disney-fied, stifling the immersive effect of the prose no matter how good the writing. But that's just not the case with Into That Forest; the tigers (Hannah names them Dave and Corinna) bite the girls when they don't like something they're doing, viciously establish a precise feeding order, and, when another male tiger arrives on the scene, battle commences over mating rights with Corinna. It's a wonderful account of predatory life and contains some beautifully written, intimate moments which are all the more touching because of the savagery surrounding them.
The final thing to say about Into That Forest is that the text is interspersed with the occasional illustration. Joe McLaren's drawings are beautifully subtle, and mirror the powerful effect of the sublime and deceptively simplistic writing. Together, both text and illustration ensure that thoughts of Hannah, Becky and the tigers will linger in your mind for days after you've finished the novel, probably much longer.