It's admirable when a novel sets out its own rules forming a unique rigid structure to convey a story. Rather than limiting the narrative, this can give the author freedom to drive through her meaning and create a rhythm to the story which gives the reader a comforting sense of being held by an authoritative voice. It's something I love so much about the monumental achievement that is Virginia Woolf's “The Waves” - a book that invokes six characters' interior poetic voices throughout the course of their lives with each section prefaced by short descriptions of the sun's movement over the course of a day. Deborah Kay Davies invents her own structure writing a book composed of page-long lyrical scenes headed by titles that trace the development of a young girl. “Reasons She Goes to the Woods” is the story of adolescent Pearl who grows from girlhood to a young adult over the course of the book exploring the sometimes deviant compulsions and tumultuous passions which contribute to the formation of identity.
Davies creates a constellation of sensory images invoking all the beauty and rancor of childhood. Pearl is a wilful child who explores the nearby forested area surrounding her house, pines for the attention of her stalwart father, plays with and tortures her younger brother who she dismissively labels “the blob” and rebels against her emotionally-volatile mother. The independently-minded girl forms her own rules by which to conduct herself and orchestrates intensely cruel initiation ceremonies which her playmates must go through before they can become her friend. This is very reminiscent of the opening section of Jane Bowles' “Two Serious Ladies” where gruesome muddy rituals between children are carried out with an emotionally-intense religious fervour. Pearl emerges as a natural leader who is revered by her friends and brother despite the vicious way she deals with them. It seems to be in the natural order of things that strength is followed over those who have empathy but are weak. The young heroine is also frank in her sexual exploration seeking out pleasure without any embarrassment.
The author's beautifully lyrical writing teases out hidden dimensions to the surface of the world. At one point in Pearl's early life when she's immersed in nature she observes “Lightning cracks above the rooftops, revealing the stunning light from a more interesting world behind the sky.” The physical dimension of the landscape in this novel constantly shifts to show different forms of reality lurking behind what is only immediately apparent. It feels as if this extends to people themselves, particularly Pearl's unstable mother who is prone to fits of mysterious illness. At times she is a presence so threatening I felt intense distress for the welfare of Pearl and her brother. Other times she's incredibly delicate and subject to Pearl's own pernicious will. Pearl's revelation chimes like a blaring alarm: “In amongst the apple trees she feels so excited she wants to float like a balloon. So, mothers can die, she thinks, running from tree to tree. I never knew that.” The girl's seeming intent to take her mother's place in her father's affections works as a mother-daughter form of the Oedipus story.
Gradually Pearl progressions into her teenage years completing exams at school and casting off her childhood romantic love affair. The evolution of her identity is beautifully and cleverly marked by Davies through periods of reflection. “Pearl stares into her own eyes and thinks someone else is peering out through them. Her real self has leaked away. Now all that is left is this stranger, almost as unhappy as she is.” This marks both Pearl's physical growth and transformation as well as interior shifts in personality. It's as if her essential identity must be emptied out to make room for a more mature and savvy self that can confront the challenges of the world.
This is a brisk poetic novel that can be easily read over a quiet afternoon. But I frequently found myself having to stop and slowly read certain pages to feel the full gravity of what Davies was writing. I enjoy that the narrative isn't always straightforward and it's necessary to try to figure out what's really happening amongst the characters. Davies is a confident talented writer who has here given an original coming of age story more concerned with a rapidly-shifting internal reality than the solid milestones of development.