Saturday, 29 March 2014

The Baileys Longlist: Reasons She Goes To The Woods

This novel's fabulous title finally tempted me to give it a go, despite the reservations I expressed in my round-up of the Baileys Longlist here. And how I wanted to like it. Deborah Kay Davies is clearly a gifted writer, and her evocations of a small girl exploring the woods are spot on both in terms of the psychology of small girls and the geography of woodlands:  'the stream's breath smells of bright weeds, frogspawn, lichened pebbles... Circular, swirling eyes come and go on its surface... Pearl's shorts and pink sun-top all feel so stupid. She wades into the water, her sandals growing heavy, and waits for the stream to settle.' And, a little later on in Pearl's childhood: 'The sun is jabbing through the foliage like knitting needles, pointing out beautiful things. Bursts of golden light dart and pool in amongst the leaves. Her eyes are sore and swollen. Everything has a pink tinge. It's weird, and the woods start to look wrong, so she throws her voice up to the trees' heads.' As a very small child, the short vignettes from Pearl's life are fascinatingly well-observed. I'm wary of child narrators, but even I had to admit that Davies handles these snippets well, simultaneously capturing the eerie dangers and fantastic adventures promised by the woods.

Unfortunately, Reasons She Goes To The Woods does not fulfil the promise of its opening sections. One major issue is the form of the novel. I think restrictive forms can often be very good for writers - Eleanor Catton certainly made it work in The Luminaries - but by choosing to tell Pearl's story not only in brief vignettes but vignettes that all have to be more-or-less the same length, Davies has saddled herself with an impossible task. This almost works when Pearl is a small child, as the brief sections mirror the short attention span of a three- or four-year-old, but the natural lengthening the reader expects as Pearl grows into a teenager is necessarily absent. Rather than sinking deeper into Pearl's world, the reader feels increasingly alienated and confused. Secondly, I found that Pearl herself became a less interesting character as she grew older - although perhaps she was imprisoned in the novel's form. The originality of her depiction as a small child gives way to something that feels much more familiar; an amoral, unforgiving, judgemental and rather Freudian girl caught between childhood and adulthood. Especially near the end of the novel, I had the sense that Davies was grasping for fairy-tale resonances, but - having never had much patience with Bruno Bettleheim's Freudian readings of fairy-tales, as I discussed in my review of Sara Maitland's Gossip From The Forest - I felt that this all fell rather flat.

I can't see this on the Baileys shortlist, largely because it promises so much more than it delivers. However, the quality of the writing was evident throughout, and I'll be seeking out more of Davies's work.

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