Two family novels playing with time: Virginia Woolf and Emily Perkins

5 Jul

Quite out the blue I decided to pick-up a copy of Virgina Woolf’s Between the Acts, a short novel about the mounting of a village fete at the outbreak on World War II.  Wordsworth have just published a new edition of the story coupled with The Years the last novel published in Woolf’s lifetime, written in 1937. After finishing Between the Acts I set about reading the second novel, a family saga told in episodes  from the 1880s to the 1930s (Woolf’s present day).

 The Years is not an easy read, Woolf splits the novel chronology into years, although the interval between them can be one or ten. The Pargiter family members, four siblings, and two sets of cousins populate the narrative unevenly, for instance we spend time with one sister and only hear references of another through the conversations of the others. The narrative spins on the minutiae of the family’s lives rather than the big events which would structure a conventional saga. Often the parts of the novel focus on the occasions when the family meet-up or encounter one another in this way it is an excellent meditation on family relationships particularly the strangeness of people to whom we are connected by blood rather than everyday context. When the family meet, their encounters seem like stoppages in their everyday lives and we learn very little of their lives outside the family.  This is heightened by Woolf’s style which offers the reader close proximity to the characters’ internal thoughts and feelings.

 Emily Perkins’s The Forrests has a similar formal structure to Woolf’s novel: it follows the Forrest family from the siblings’ early childhood to their old age slipping from the narrative viewpoints of Lee (the mother), Dorothy & Evelyn. The crucial difference is that Perkins removes any reference to a specific time and limits that of place. We simply know that the family move to New Zealand from New York and that Lee and Frank move back to the US when their children have grown-up. Each section of the novel seems modern creating the strange effect of the reader being contemporaneous with the characters even as they grow old.  In a similar way to Woolf, Perkins focuses on small details lavishing pages of description over simple tasks, accidents and split-second feelings. Her characters move through the hazy context she creates and it is a beautiful effect.

The temporal form of both books disrupts conventional grand narratives, allowing the ordinariness of life to become dominant. It ignores the masculine positions of work and power to focus on the personal, the everyday and the mundane. Which is not to say dull and prosaic as both novelists realise it as poetic, deftly holding a mirror up to life and letting us look in. This is my favourite aspect of Woolf’s writing and Perkins does it well too.

The most important connection I would like to make between Perkins and Woolf however, is their focus on female characters. Although Woolf places her male characters in the first person too it is the female characters who make the book; they extend from the upper to the working classes feeling, thinking and experiencing things in a profound way whereas the male characters seem to laugh, chide and respond to the world only through their work-ordained experiences. Similarly Perkins focuses on the women in her story, magnifying the gestures of motherhood, the physical feel of ageing and the heartbreak of first-love. In her Guardian review, Ursula Le Guin complained of the novels slow pace and dull detail allowing Dot’s life to be summed-up as boring and uneventful, but the book offers much more than that. It is a slow meditation full of precise description, creating a full sense of Dot’s movements through life and her relationships to others.

Both books are excellent meditations on family relationships through time presented in a beautiful way. Definitely two books to savour!

The Years and Between the Acts, by Virginia Woolf £1.99 paperback, Wordsworth (2012). The Forrests, by Emily Perkins £12.99 paperback, Bloomsbury (2012).

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