This week’s installment of the Weekend Name Drop is a shining light on the New Zealand literary scene whose work has been reviewed world-wide and compared to that of Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf. Meet Emily Perkins.
Name: Emily Perkins
Creative field: Author, Playwright, University Lecturer, TV presenter
Location: Wellington, New Zealand
Best known for: Author of the novels, The Forrests (2012) and Novel About My Wife (2008); 2011 Arts Foundation Laureate; Senior Lecturer at the International Institute of Modern Letters; host of TVNZ’s The Good Word
My connection: This post completes a trilogy, of sorts. Emily is one of the three writers I have featured (along with Bianca Zander and Nix Whittaker) who participated in this year’s Ruapehu Writers Festival’s Fiction Anthology, a session I had the privilege of chairing. Prior to learning about Emily’s involvement in the festival, I had downloaded the Kindle edition of her acclaimed novel, The Forrests. Knowing I would be meeting her propelled the book to the top of my reading list. Our session was received with commendation, in large part to Emily’s contributions which were candid and astute. I have since maintained e-mail contact with her, especially as I completed reading The Forrests. I felt compelled to share my personal response to her novel and she’s received my comments warmly.
Inspiration for this writer: On the surface, The Forrests is not a novel I should have enjoyed as much as I did. It’s the life story of a female protagonist, sharing key moments from her childhood and teen years, her decades as a wife and mother, and finally from her senior years. A large part of Dorothy Forrest’s world is domestic and even mundane. However, after a few chapters, I was engrossed and bought in; by the middle (when Dorothy is about the same age as I am presently), I was moved and a believer; by the end, I was a fan and a champion for this book. If there is one triumph in The Forrests beyond the impeccable and universally admired prose, it is that Dorothy Forrest is the same person throughout, even as she changes with age, experience, heartbreak, depression and new found connections with her past. There are large jumps in time between vignettes from Dorothy’s life, with more left unsaid than said. At the festival, Emily told us she hoped readers would continue to come with her as she moved in this sequence, aware of the limits she was testing in some readers. I think she’s done it brilliantly.
Strangely, it reminded me of another book that impacted me that I shouldn’t have enjoyed: The Stone Angel by Margaret Lawrence, required reading in my Grade 12 (Year 13 ) English class. Or, at least, The Forrests left me with impressions similar to the way I remember experiencing Lawrence’s tale of 90 year old Hagar Shipley. It is ironic that The Forrests has been criticised as a series of vignettes, as Lawrence’s novel, also written as vignettes, is acclaimed as one the greatest Canadian novels of all time. Looking at reviews of both books on Goodreads, they are lauded and lambasted for similar reasons and it would seem there is no middle ground. For my teenage self, something must have resonated with The Stone Angel in a similar fashion to what The Forrests does now. This seems apt, as it causes me to contemplate what was in me then that is the same now, and what has changed – much as we are challenged to contemplate the character arc of Dorothy Forrest. Reading The Forrests was a terrific experience.
Why you should check her out and share with others: While The Forrests made a significant splash in the waters of New Zealand literature (it was championed as an early favourite to win the 2012 Man Booker Prize), Emily Perkins has been a writer of great import since the publication of her first book, Not Her Real Name and Other Stories, which won Best First Fiction Book in the 1996 New Zealand Post Book awards. Since then, her multiple awards and critical acclaim have spoken volumes. In 2008, she won the Montana Book Awards with Novel About My Wife; and The Forrests, while not winning the Booker, was selected as a Book of the Year in the Daily Telegraph, Observer, and New Statesman, and shortlisted for Best Book of Fiction in the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Awards. According to The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature, Emily is known for her “deft narration and tellingly authentic dialogue … [her] tales are edged with an adroit downbeat wit and aptitude for episodes that tilt into black-absurdist comedy.” Her prose is literary and accessible and certain to produce even greater works in future. Not convinced? Check out the following passage from my favourite scene in The Forrests, when Antony-aged Dorothy attends her high school reunion.
Sample of work:
“In the large picture window beyond the kitchen, Amanda Marshall stood silhouetted, a man at her side. Dorothy caught her eye and waved and Amanda resumed animated chat with the man as though she hadn’t seen. Through the window was a view of the school’s top field. Maya slid a wine glass into Dot’s hand. Her perfume smelled of jasmine and gardenias. It was time to brave the living room, where about twenty people in small groups stood dotted around, not all identifiable without staring. Many of the women had moved to the short, bran muffin hairstyle of the forty-plus.
An air of the Principal’s office hung over the closest group as they stood in silence, casting around for what to do with olive pits and dirty paper plates. Someone said, ‘We live a the end of the train line now, isn’t that awful?’ A conversation started about children. None of them were sending their kids to the school where they’d all met.
‘Not even me,’ said Maya, ‘and I could probably hit the roof of the common room if I threw something from here.’
‘You should try it,’ Dorothy said. ‘Maybe an egg.’
Maya glanced around and spoke as though to herself. ‘I wonder if this is everyone.’
Later, when Dorothy was talking to Nicky something and Elaine Woods-now-Rogerson, she heard, ‘Is Daniel coming?’ and the women’s words churned and bubbled over the floor, all the sound of the party underwater except Maya’s response.
‘Yes of course! He’d better be.’
Jason’ group exchanged information about Philip Lloyd, who has become a dealer in Australia. ‘Really?’
‘A car dealer,’ said Jason’s wife, who had been a few years behind their group at school, ‘not a drug dealer.’
Jason said Daniel was definitely out of jail and someone else said he’d never actually been in jail and a third person said apparently he’d found God since getting off the smack. ‘The NA God, where everything’s a pathology. You can’t sneeze without wanting to make it with your mother.’
‘I always wanted to make it with your mother,’ said a man Dot knew but couldn’t name.
Jason laughed. ‘Yeah well we’re not about to move her into a unit at the bottom of our garden so come round any time.’
‘Where’s your dad?’
‘He passed away last year.’
The conversation shifted to choosing funeral directors and Dorothy drifted on. A man who didn’t look familiar sat in the corner of a black leather sofa and a woman with great legs sat next to him and held a champagne glass to his lips. Down the hall in a room that might have been a study four or five people murmured and laughed over a wall display of photographs from their time at school. The outgoing cluster squeezed past Dot in the doorway. The room was empty now. The photos were on the walls. Evelyn would be there, and Daniel, and Michael, and Ruth. Her email to Michael about the reunion had bounced back. From the living room came the opening chords of a song that was number one for the summer she learned to drive. Someone shouted, ‘Maya, we’ve got the whole night to get through, pace yourself!’
Here’s Emily, herself, discussing The Forrests at the 2012 Sydney Writers’ Festival:
Feature Photo of Emily taken by Sara Orme.
The Weekend Name Drop is a weekly feature on this blog, promoting people I have encountered who are doing creative things.