What makes a life? Louise Ells reviews Forest Green by Kate Pullinger (Penguin Random House Canada 2020).
Isn’t is a magical feeling when you read a novel at exactly the right time in your life? And, as you read it, know that it’s a book you’ll re-read in the future (which, you suspect, will also be the right time in your life to read it)? For me, Kate Pullinger’s Forest Green (Penguin Random House) was one such novel.
We meet Art Lunn as a 68-year-old homeless man in a short first chapter (a prologue in everything but name). The novel then takes us back to Art as an educated, loved, fortunate seven-year-old child, and a series of events that change the trajectory of his life. The novel then progresses with a linear narrative, giving the reader a brief glimpse into each decade of Art’s life, though with the realistic (imperfect) nature of memory. Art’s fragmented memories of the recent and distant past intermingle, and are at times skewed by alcohol abuse.
On the surface, this man’s life is unexceptional, and the stylistic choices that Pullinger makes (unadorned vocabulary, simple syntax) reflect his appearance as an average person. Art’s age is well signposted as the chapters are both titled and dated; far more important is the focus on patterns as a constant marker of the passage of time. Art tends to work (and excel at) outdoor seasonal jobs, and takes note of nature’s cycles. The decisions Pullinger has made as to which moments of Art’s life to highlight, which to show in detail, which to brush with broader strokes, and which to let the reader fill in herself, are deftly handled.
Absences are as important as the described events. Family stories, both told and untold. Things done, and left undone. Conversations, and silence. One of the novel’s leitmotifs is hiding: hiding the truth, burying (or trying unsuccessfully to bury) a memory, glances at photographs of deceased loved ones, and places that are hidden, such as an encampment on the outskirts of a small town, and two cellars.
The novel examines how a single defining incident can shape a life, and also how that incident can appear to influence later decisions, resulting in a seemingly pre-destined cause-and-effect. As Art makes choices about his life, the past is never far away, and yet he is at times relentlessly cheerful, determined that, “It would all work out. It would be all right.” (Forest Green, p. 213)
Although I forgave the coincidence of Art’s meeting his once best friend in Italy during the war, I was less sure of the scene that followed. It felt a little too on the nose, though perhaps that was the point; if one chooses to feel responsible when something bad happens, regardless of one’s accountability, then it’s easy to feel guilty about it. I found another chance meeting harder to believe, and it pulled me from the novel with too many questions. (Art had just been given a shot of lignocaine by a dentist, so was this a hallucination, or a case of mistaken identity? What did I learn about Art from this encounter? Why did this happen here, now?) But it was only a moment, and then I moved on.
Art moves on, or tries to, for most of his life. “If the war had taught him anything, it was the importance of moving on, pushing forward, getting up and trying again.” (p. 118) At times, however, he is unable to free himself from bad luck and/or poor choices that hold him back. The novel considers various definitions of a “jungle” – a homeless encampment, the dense forests of Haida Gwaii, a nickname for a logging camp’s moonshine – and while it is too simplistic to consider Art as lost in a place from which he’s struggling to escape, he himself knows that he is, in some ways, the best version of himself when he’s not surrounded by people, even those he loves the most.
“He longed to be up north in the endless trees, pressed between the cold forest green and the black grasping sea, remote from the world of family and friends, remote from the world of small towns strung out across the province like beads on a broken necklace.” (p. 184)
(No spoilers – but “forest green” is mentioned again during the description of a knitted hat.)
A small point: the characters’ names are especially well chosen, from a tiny walk-on part (a proper dentist, McCoy) and a rarely seen older sister, Tilly (who is unable to steer Art in a different direction), to the most important women in Art’s life: Peg and Rose. Rose is Art’s great love: “When he was with her, all that mattered was that moment, the very moment they were living.” (p. 120) His sister, Peg, is the one true anchor in his life. Peg is with him for the first half of the traumatic childhood event, and yet her life unfolds much differently from his. (Their peers would consider her life a success, as measured by wealth and stability.)
Eventually the layers of loss become an almost unbearable burden. “It was all so damn heavy, the weight of remembering, the weight of living.” (p. 144) Art insists, however, that “Things would get better. They always had.” (p. 3)
One reason I read fiction is to help me make sense of the world I live in. The city where I live has just this week dismantled a tent city, and since the onset of Covid-19 I have been reading local obituaries, wondering at what makes a life, and what makes a life well lived. Forest Green helped me think more clearly about these and other questions.
—Louise Ells is the author of Notes Towards Recovery (Latitude 46 Publishing, 2019), a thematically-linked short story collection. An English and Creative Writing teacher, Ells earned her PhD in Creative Writing from Anglia Ruskin University, and was a Hawthornden Fellow in 2017. She has worked as a chef, an office manager, and as a co-pilot on a submarine. Louise Ells lives beside Lake Nipissing, and blogs about caregiving at A Long, Lonely Journey.
Kate Pullinger is no stranger to Canadian Writers Abroad, as you can see by this interview and this book review of her 2014 novel Landing Gear. Nor is British Columbia foreign territory to her – born in Cranbrook, she went to high school on Vancouver Island. Her novel The Mistress of Nothing won the 2009 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. Inanimate Alice is a digital fiction project for children, while Breathe is a ghost story, free on your smartphone. In 2014, Kate Pullinger was awarded the Anne Green Award at Wordfest, Canada. Check out her collaboration with Neil Bartlett for a First World War Memorial: Letter to an Unknown Soldier.