I’d finished Edna O’Brien well over a week ago now, and it’s taken me some time to get around to actually writing this review. In The Forest had been the first novel on my reading list of strange books I’ve collected from charity shops and intend to read this year.
Overall I’d enjoyed the novel, found it both superbly written intrigueing in parts, although the plot had its weaker moments which weren’t helped by O’Brien’s oblique and eloquent style.
It is an easy to read novel, and I was attracted by the morbid themes described in the blurb, about a troubled young man who abducts a woman and her child, and who suffer at his hands ‘in a forest’. It sounded horror gothic, chilling and, perhaps, a well plotted cat-and-mouse thriller films resembling Pan’s Labrynth or Dead Calm, or maybe Fowles brilliant psychological thriller The Collector. Needless to say, it failed my expectations, despite the literary recommendations from The Guardian and The Times, as being a ‘page-turner’, and one of the best novels of the year.
The novel itself is less structured like thriller or serial-killer plot, the likes of Hitchcock’s Psycho or Silence of the Lambs, then a story about the isolation, fears and traumas of a smalled community confronted by the terrible realisation that they might be complicit in the tragic events which transpired.
It bares a resemble to Hitchcock’s Psycho thematically and structurally, as the narrative begins by tracing the traumatic past of young boy, O’Kane, rejected by his family and the Catholic community, and sentenced to a juvenile detention centre, then Catholic school and then finally a mental institute, where he is systematically abused by his guardians both sexually and emotionally.
Members of the community fear him, and so resort to ostracise him as a freak. As he grows into a man, his thoughts naturally become malign, and his contempt of the community and family that betrays becomes his obsession.
As these events unfold, the structure follows the main characters, O’Kane and his victims from their differing points of view, allowing the reader to identify and act as a witness for each of them. For anyone who’s read similar novels such as Catcher in the Rye, or had read the book or the film adaptations of either The Butcher Boy or Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, you might notice some similarities here.
What it appears that O’Brien wants to show is the difficulty or resistence from the community to accept or examine their traumatic past. The ferrel character of O’Kane invokes the same primitive qualities as those what we find in young killer in McCarthy’s novel, who driven madness embarks on a strange dreamlike descent into murder and necrophilia in order to replicate emotion and stiffle his loneliness. O’Kane also seems caught between madness and awareness of his evil, but remains unable or unwilling to control his impulses. This sense of isolation and impotence seems reflected in the single mother’s frustrated romance and boredom within the community itself.
At certain times, I’d felt that sudden switch from the abused boy to psychopathic thug seemed to arbritary, and wasn’t sure whether I was expected to feel sympathy of O’Kane or his victims, or the actions taken by the authorities and clergy in the community to both reprimand and shield O’Kane.
Interesting, perhaps coincidentally, a priest visting O’Kane to treat him for his injuries is named as McCarthy, and possibly a reference to Child Of God, but who remains apathetic to the young man. In the final end, the young killer, after being commited to a psychiatric hospital where he is visited by the sister he’d once attacked, appears to die mysteriously following a treatment for a medical condition, which was the similar fate of the character in Child Of God, before being cremated and put to rest without any further thought from the others who knew him.
I believe O’Brien does describe the the secret place in the forest where the boy and his phantom mother once lived, possibly as a way of summoning the spirits and the memories which had been sheltered there. I find the ambiguity and poetry of the difficult to comprehend, but realise that this is based on a true story, as was Child Of God (the Ed Gien murders presumably, which had also inspired Psycho and Silence of the Lambs), as with Sissy Spacek’s childlike voiceover in the violent road movie Badlands, the story ends suddenly, as if the characters had been living a dream in some other place the entire time. A short note at the end names the people and the places in which the novel was based.