This is one of those books that has been on my to-read list for soooooo long that, until I was almost halfway through it, I couldn’t work out why the hell I ever would have wanted to read it. Don’t worry, though, I have a good idea now.
Gone to the forest is a 2012 novel by an American, and it is the most MFA book I’ve encountered in a long time. It’s the kind of novel that does “being a novel” in a very traditional sense and though, yes, that does mean it’s technically fine, good enough, alright, what it also means is that it feels like a novel by numbers, and a lot of those numbers are things that are, even just a few years on, are v fucking old school.
As a novel, yes, its structure is fine, it works ok, the characterisation is not impotent and the narrative is coherent and cohesive. However, as a piece of literature it does all those things that “good novels” do, with a result that it feels – to me – a little flat, though that’s perhaps because this isn’t the style of novel I like to read.
Kitamura touches on big themes – colonialism, racism, sexism, agriculture, societal change, climate change, natural disasters, infidelity, death, birth, money, fresh water fish farms, volcanoes and rebellion. It is set in a – for me irritatingly – vague location that politically seems a lot like Zimbabwe but geographically doesn’t, to the point where the action could be happening in a half-written island in the Caribbean, in an African country, somewhere in India, in the Philippines, anywhere colonialism has left its mark: we do not know, but it doesn’t feel like it could be an “anywhere”, because the massacre of white settlers in the 21st century by a black political movement that started demanding restitution then got violent only [famously] happened down in the South of Africa. Maybe the plot of this novel could have happened in Argentina or Australia or the USA or Canada, too – anywhere where native peoples were subjugated by white colonialists who geographically exploited the country for financial gain – but for a novel that is so much about land itself, not locating it feels off.
Similarly, the chronological location is vague too, and as it’s a rural location there are lots of horses, but there are also cars, a reference to watching horror films in a domestic setting 20 years before the action of the story and there are lots of other cultural signifiers that suggest and imply firm and vague dates anywhere between 1900 (contradicted by the implied reference to television) and 1980 (contradicted by lots of social mores that are expressed, though of course the families of inherently racist settlers would have been socially conservative up until their murders).
There’s an interview with Kitamura included at the end of the book (why???) which includes her stating that this vague setting is deliberate. But it doesn’t feel like it is, it feels like Kitamura hadn’t decided where/when to set her narrative, or was worried about errors of accuracy when writing at length about real events in a different part of the world. Vagueness can be fine in a story, in a novel, and one of the protagonists – the son of the aged white farmer whose land is about to be redistributed by the post-coup government – is a fucking moron, but even he would know slightly more about the country he lives in and what fucking year it is than Kitamura allows him to. The vagueness, a choice, is a great weakness, and it spoils what had the potential to have been a powerful novel.
It has a vague setting, it shifts perspective a lot (and prioritises white male voices), there’s a scene of graphic sexual violence and it hits a lot of v trad BIG themes. It’s a novel in the way that people are taught novels have to be, and I think it’s a fallacy: you can teach someone what textual and stylistic features tend to appear in great books, but that doesn’t guarantee that slinging them all into your manuscript will make it one. Kitamura follows the pattern of the canon with her humanising focus on the exploitative colonialists and the young woman who goes from fiancé of the son to lover of the father without any real explanation of her motives at all.
The violence and excesses that occur as a result of the fightback against colonialism are, yes, a ripe topic for a novel, but I think they have to take the “rebels” as the perspective focus (or at an absolute minimum of fucking fifty per cent), and they need to offer some specifics.
But, yes, I’m being overly harsh, but I was obviously recommended this novel at some point while I was doing my MA, and it was obviously recommended because it’s “an example of a great contemporary novel”.
I would argue – though who am I, I know nothing – that this is far from a great contemporary novel, it is a contemporary novel that glibly does things that some great (but many more not so great) novels from the past have done.
Gone to the forest is not a sensitive exploration of colonialism, and though it doesn’t exactly anticipate a reader who sees the white characters as “innocent victims”, it doesn’t explore (imo) the real victims in this story: the agricultural worker, the servant, the native, the rebel, the people whose country has been ravaged and exploited by generations of dickheads.
Not recommending this one. Teehee.