Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell
Deborah Kay Davies is one of those writers who does dark rather well. Her first novel True Things About Me was disturbing and unputdownable – a nasty tale told through the eyes of a thrill-seeking young woman who gets into an abusive relationship. Her second novel, which was longlisted for the 2014 Baileys Prize, Reasons She Goes to the Woods is also disturbing and equally unputdownable…
It’s about a child, Pearl, and her family. There’s her little brother known as The Blob, her mother and her beloved Daddy. The book’s blurb quotes from the nursery rhyme There was a little girl, (which was actually written by Longfellow, I found out!). ‘When she was good she was very, very good, And when she was bad she was horrid.’ The rhyme is apposite, but Pearl is, however, more often bad than good.
She’s an experimenter on other people – when she gets found out, they don’t like it – especially her mother who punishes her. Pearl takes to hiding in the woods behind their house. It soon becomes clear that the mother has mental health problems, and Pearl gets blamed, and as she grows up and becomes a teenager, her experiments get nastier, and her mother carries on getting worse. Her poor beloved Daddy is beside himself with worry.
Some might say that the outcome of the novel is predictable given Pearl’s seeming single-mindedness in her actions; the route to get there though is not so obvious and builds up gradually over the course of the book.
The author tells the story with a great deal of style. Although the book is nominally 250 pages long, only half the pages contain the tale. Each pair of pages contains a one or two word heading on the left, and then a single paragraph that fills the page on the right. Thus the novel is in reality only about 120 pages long.
Each right hand page is a vignette recounting one snapshot of Pearl’s life, moving from primary school through to teenage years. The extract below is the last third of the very first of these little stories that make up the whole:
The living room is quiet. In the entire world there is only Pearl and her father. Her mother laid a fire before she went out; taking ages, leaving instructions, dropping things, then slamming the door and coming back. Now Pearl listens to the sounds coming from the grate as the flames lick each other and purr. From the place pressed against her father’s knee she feels a rippling sensation move through her body, as if a delicate, frilled mushroom were expanding, elongating, filling her up. She exhales slowly. She mustn’t disturb him. He would push her off with his beautiful hands if he woke up.
Told in the present tense, there is a dreamy otherworldliness about Pearl’s actions that belies the fact that a lot of what she does is downright nasty. It’s clear that the mother-daughter relationship never happened and that she idolises her father. She also has a controlling relationship with her few friends, and The Blob too of course. After all, Pearl only wants one thing …
The structure of this novel may not be for everyone – but I liked it – having loved other novels told in vignettes before, Mrs Bridge and Mr Bridge by Evan S. Connell for instance, (but they are much lighter fare). What I like about this style is the way that it is the moments that matter to drive the plot and character that get picked out and concentrated in these shortest stories within a longer arc. The author here tells them sparely with no padding and great intensity too making the reader increasingly uneasy.
Deborah Kay Davies has again probed the dark side of relationships – different ones this time. I wonder what depths of the human psyche she’ll plumb for her next novel? As I said at the top, this book is disturbing and unputdownable, an uneasy but thought-provoking read.
Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books editors.
Deborah Kay Davies, Reasons She Goes to the Woods, (One World, London, Feb 2014) 978-1780745312, 256pp., paperback July 2014.