Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The White Forest: Review

I was familiar with the realms of unnatural, for I myself was an unnatural. Not a monster in appearance; I looked like other young women, though perhaps not as primped and manicured. But I wasn't the same as other girls. My friends believed I was sick or gifted. Either way, I was unfortunate. Something entirely new upon the earth. (The White Forest by Adam McOmber)

I don't often do this, but...
Run, don't walk, to your nearest bookshop (or whatever means you have for feeding your reading addiction) and get your hands on this book.  Do it now.

Adam McOmber has written an amazing first novel.  It's weird and Gothic and lyrical and Victorian and literary and mythic and compelling.  If there hadn't been these things called work and sleep, I would have sat down and read it straight through.  It is not, however, a comfortable book.  The protagonist, Jane Silverlake, isn't a particularly likeable character.  Actually, none of the main characters are particularly likeable.  

Jane has this odd power--she can hear and see the souls of inanimate, man-made object.  The objects around her moan and sing and babble in a cacophony of sound.  They shine and glow with colors.  And at times she sees a world that does not belong to ours--a white forest that seems almost to be made of paper.  She has been isolated for much of her life and when she comes into contact with Madeline and Nathan she doesn't know how to interact with them.  She longs to belong and somehow thinks that if she shares her power with Nathan, she'll become closer to him.

Nathan becomes obsessed with her power and wants to experiment with her and what she can do.  He isn't really interested in Jane (which is what she wants); he's hoping she can open up the world of Empyrean (or Paradise) for him. His obsession with Empyrean leads him to join a cult led by Ariston Day--a charismatic man who had collected a following of the sons of London's elite.  They are all searching for a way to recreate London...and the rest of the world...as a new Paradise.

Madeline is jealous of Jane.  She's jealous and afraid of her power.  She doesn't like the way Nathan wants to be with Jane to learn more.  Her cruelty to Jane and her willingness to hurt and even sacrifice Jane and her powers to rescue Nathan don't exactly recommend her as a bosom friend.  But through most of the book, as Jane and Maddie try to find out what happened to Nathan and Jane searches to find out who she is and exactly what her powers represent, Jane clings to what remnants of friendship as she can find.

What initially interested me about the book was the mention of Inspector Vidocq.  Regular readers of my blog will know that I am a vintage mystery addict. It intrigued me that Adam was using the actual historical detective in his novel and I was eager to see how that played out.  Vidocq is brought in to investigate by Nathan's father when his son disappears.   Unfortunately, Vidocq is a rather peripheral character--making few appearances and giving little evidence of being much like what I would expect from "the father of criminal investigation."  

It is proof of Adam's skill as a writer that he was able to completely hook me on his story even though I didn't much care for his main characters and his detective wasn't quite what I expected.  The mythos behind Jane's powers and the mystery surrounding them were so compelling and intriguing that it really didn't matter that I didn't like her or her friends much.  I had to know what was happening.  I had to keep reading until the end.  

A wonderfully compelling book that, despite it's other-worldly qualities manages to be entirely believable.  And perhaps that's due in part to the nature of the main characters.  We all know that the world is full of people who may not be likeable, but who have powerful stories and who affect the world in so many ways.  Four and a half stars.


Sleep is, at times, indecisive. Death, however, always knows his aim and purpose. [Alexander Hartwell, p. 15]


roro said...

lovely review . i hope i get it soon

J F Norris said...

McOmber a local boy and college teacher here in Chicago. Missed my chance to hear him read at a local bookshop, but I bought his book last week. Signed no less!

I'm on Chapter 3 and wish I could leave work and read the whole book all day. Love it! Forgive me If I only read your post up to "Run don't walk..."

I'm getting a lot of Arthur Machen influence. And I cannot help but think Ariston Day was modeled on Aleister Crowley.

Bev Hankins said...

John: When I started out in the English Dept here at IU, Adam was one of "my" MFA Creative Writing grad students. (I was the secretary for the Creative Writing Program--I have since jumped ship for the MA/PhD Lit side of things.....).

Cheryl @ Tales of the Marvelous said...

This sounds like it has some marvelous ideas in it--Jane's power sounds fascinating, and it sounds like there are some wonderful complexities to the character interactions.