Into the Forest was a late holiday gift, and I blazed through it in a day. It’s a very quick read and author Jean Hegland’s style is equal parts Margaret Atwood and Barbara Kingsolver, though she’s not quite as deft in her prose as either of those writers. There are also echoes of the back-to-the-land resourcefulness Katniss Everdeen displays in The Hunger Games, and the book is easily as addictive as the first book in that series.
The book unfolds its exposition of a near-future apocalypse masterfully, and without giving too much away, it focuses on two sisters, Eva and Nell, forced to survive in their family’s isolated Northern California home after society as they know it collapses. Eva is an obsessive ballet dancer and Nell is an obsessive scholar if for no other reason than having something to do while Eva practices her fuetes. Their family history and dynamic are spooled out by Nell herself in a notebook she receives on the last Christmas the sisters celebrate before they lose track of time.
The beats are familiar, well-worn territory for readers of Doomsday fiction, but they still pack the power of surprise. Dwindling supplies and the threat of other survivors carry some narrative heft, but the relationship between the two sisters, stranded in an uncertain future, is the star here. Both are on their own coming-of-age trajectory, and fireworks are not short in supply when their paths don’t match up, particularly around Nell’s flirtation with a slightly older man named Eli and her subsequent sexual awakening. The titular forest is easily the third protagonist, as its wildness and unpredictability alternately offer succor or additional misery to the embattled siblings. It is also a potent symbol of Eva and Nell’s love for one another and their now-shattered idyllic childhood.
Hegland is a bit cagey when it comes to sex—she always uses the phrase “made love,” which, does anyone actually say that? But perhaps a 17 year old narrator with no sexual experience and nothing but time on her hands can be forgiven for that semantic choice (even if the author cannot). The book was originally published in 1996, just before the Internet really exploded, so there’s a certain quaintness about the “contemporary” world inhabited by these young women. The Internet, phone, and electricity are missed, but I think if this were written today, the lack of Internet would carry more weight. That quaintness never distracts from the narrative, though, and places the action firmly in a world where 24/7 connectivity hadn’t quite encroached on everyone yet.
The overall effect of the book is unsettling. There are no easy answers for anyone, and the resolution carries with it as much dread as it does triumph. I’m curious to see how the upcoming film adaptation (starring Evan Rachel Wood and Ellen Page) plays out on the big screen. It’s a pretty bleak book, sort of like The Road with female protagonists who, rather than wandering the blighted landscape, stay in one place.
Book Feel: This was a trade paperback, so pretty unremarkable, but the slimness of the volume definitely lends itself to binge-reading and slipping into a purse to read on the train.