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an unsettling look at growing up
on 14 April 2014
I know I shouldn’t review this book by looking at other reviews, but it’s difficult not to. It’s really interesting to see some of the words used to describe this book, but even more interesting to see the comments made about Pearl, the little girl whose world we enter into in this novel. Experience tells me that some children are cruel to each other, and bully each other, that children feel jealousy, and love and that they feel these things deeply enough for their echoes to linger into adulthood; it also suggests that their world views, and sense of propriety are limited, usually to (or by) direct experience. Pearl seems typical in this respect and I admire the fact that Davies has chosen to portray her whims and wickedness with such candour.
If Pearl is perhaps more confused (horrid/evil?) than the “average” child, whoever they might be, there are at least some mitigating factors: a newborn sibling (aka “The Blob”), a mother who has significant mental health issues, and a loving father who is well-meaning enough but appears increasingly unable to cope. Again, to me, this seems a plausible slice of reality; dysfunctional being the new “normal”. Pearl is a wicked child at times, but not devoid of sympathy when placed in the wider context of the family situation in which she is growing up.
Davies has chosen to write this book in page long vignettes, each separately titled. She gives us a different take on the standard formula of the novel which I think works well. There is some jumping about in time, but the story doesn’t lose coherence because of this, and the overall reading experience is easy with enough of a “conclusion” for it to be fulfilling. The classic oedipal themes explored help to create this comfortable narrative arc within the more experimental structure of the novel. The prose is concise, conveying descriptive information of the sights and smells and textures of childhood; the woods are a place of worms, leaves, roots and water; everything is connected with the senses: this style makes the story feel as though it is experienced by the reader rather than being told to us.
I’m not sure if I enjoyed this novel, even though I admire the risks it is taking both thematically and stylistically. The character of Pearl is written in a way that is going to be divisive as she acts out a more extreme version of the desires and manipulative whiles that every child is subject to. Reasons She Goes to the Woods offers us an unsettling look at growing up through the eyes of a girl who is struggling to control, discover and understand her place in the world.