21st Feb 2013
Gone to the Forest by Katie Kitamura
The novel is a bold and unusual work, with Kitamura choosing to eschew all but the most basic details of time and setting. Kitamura sketches out the landscape of a colonial country in which Tom and his unnamed father live. The whole place simmers on the verge of war for much of the book, but full political background is omitted.
Instead, Kitamura specialises in microcosm. The family farm breeds fish in dedicated pools, operating under an illusion of self-sustaining plenty. The farm is claustrophobic, cut off from everything else – a stage for Kitamura to play out her drama.
Her rough shading-in of old values and superstitions works terrifically, especially when the nearby volcano erupts and coats the place in ash: the panic and wonder of the workers weaves through the text, thickening the stifling atmosphere.
As a writer, Kitamura is somewhere between a formidable puppet mistress and an artist. She controls her characters with tight precision: almost every sentence is short and blunt.
The centrepiece is the tension between Tom and his father. Kitamura paints their relationship beautifully: like two stags constantly on guard, they exist in an uneasy state of stalemate.
Kitamura is somewhere between a formidable puppet mistress and an artist...With the arrival of Tom’s intended wife, Carine, the tension escalates further. The rivalry between the two men goes beyond normal father-son boundaries to become sexually charged, which Kitamura handles adroitly.
However, the strictly-controlled pace means that, when the threatened civil war erupts, the reader is kept at bay. The book remains intent on handing out pinches of drama, even when the action is pressing at the floodgates.
Reading the latter half of the Gone to the Forest is reminiscent of struggling to glimpse something in your peripheral vision to snatch some context, with Kitamura repeatedly strapping the blinkers on to maintain focus on the family drama.
Due to this, the last quarter of the book fails to engage as much as it should. It’s a frustrating journey towards the end. On one hand, the ending communicates the quiet desperation of displaced people with sensitivity. On the other, the tunnel vision Kitamura creates – and the book’s brevity – leaves you dissatisfied.
A powerful combination of beautifully creative imagery and a strong start cements Katie Kitamura’s position as a formidable emerging writer – at times, reading her words feels like getting cheek-to-cheek with literary genius.
Unfortunately, as a whole Gone to the Forest does not quite reach the heights Kitamura is in all likelihood capable of attaining: the conclusion is understated, and the overall payoff never feels quite substantial enough.
It seems Kitamura’s intent was deliberately to keep the drama of war out of the text in favour of human relationships. But perhaps the exclusion of political details doesn’t matter. Is it more crucial to realise that one story of oppression deserves to be told as the next?
Gone to the Forest was published by the Clerkenwell Press on February 14th and is available in paperback from Foyles, Amazon and your local independent bookshop, priced at £10.99. A Kindle version is also available, priced at £7.95.
Recommended for: Those who enjoy unusual images in their fiction, and fans of family dramas.
Other recommended reading: The Longshot, Kitamura’s first novel; Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee for slow-burning disintegration of family units; Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad for further exploration of colonial fiction.