Two distinct storylines but with a compelling sense of place


Nicole Krauss

The fourth novel by Nicole Krauss, a highly acclaimed Jewish-American short-story writer and novelist and the recipient of many honours, Forest Dark has two distinct threads.

Jules Epstein is a stubborn, newly single New Yorker in his late 60s who decides on a disappearing act to the dismay of his children who find this utterly ambiguous and unresolved in its seeming finality.

A presence large in life and too large for death, he is uncontainable, spilling out his presence and his financial generosity with little discretion. While his lawyer  worries about his client’s increased "neurological turbulence", Epstein has other concerns; most importantly he is newly fixated on spending time in Israel. He would like to find an outlet suitable for a generous endowment in his late parents’ names.

Nicole, meanwhile, like her namesake, is a novelist and mother living in New York. She is unable to communicate with her husband and is resigned to the fact that marital breakdown is inevitable. She is in a state of "boundless loneliness". While her non-confrontational husband demands a passive surface she finds this inability to talk about emotions highly frustrating. She feels that their shared love for the children has reached an apex, and on this note she decides to bow out of the scene for a while and concentrate on writing, prompted by childhood recollections.

Nicole remembers yearly holidays spent in the Tel Aviv Hilton, a Brutalist megalith towering over the Mediterranean waters. Planning a new novel revolving around this, she escapes her unhappy domesticity. However, this time words are slow in coming. She becomes focused on the uncanny, the unheimlich, and becomes anxious when her repressions begin to creep out. When she meets a literature professor specialising in Kafka she enters an existential crisis. Through trying to rewrite how his character has been seen by the public she is prodded into questioning her own Jewish identity.

Epstein, also at the Hilton, meanwhile delights in soaking in the sea, rocked in the "great bathtub of all life" where his thoughts veer towards fluidity and the abstract. He, too, is drawn into an all-consuming project — a film project on King David.

Forest Dark is straightforward in structure, as the two distinct adventurers take turns, a chapter each. Epstein’s is a third-person narrative while Nicole’s is told in the first.

However, what begins as straightforward narratives quickly begins to dive into the philosophical. Huge segments of musing, often biblically-based, mean the plot halts and restarts. While both Godot-like characters are journeying, this becomes increasingly metaphorical. Perplexingly, these two plots continue to work in parallel form, so it feels as if it is two novellas.

Perhaps a second reading of Forest Dark would aid reader enlightenment. However, Krauss is nothing if not ambitious in content and coverage, and her prose throughout is firm and intelligent. One striking image, for example, is of what Epstein remembers of his mother: "Inside the hem of his independence she’d sewed her command, so that at his greatest moments of freedom he felt her pull on him like gravity".

Krauss is strong in her authority and knowledge of material, and superb in conveying a compelling, often magical, sense of landscape and place.

- Jessie Neilson is a University of Otago library assistant. 

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