This is a difficult review to write, because the prose is beautifully written and I’d like to like the story, but for me, White Forest misses the mark conceptually and in its overall mood. Though some will love its dark pagan undercurrents and fuzzy mysticism, I think the story is unnecessarily confusing. The story needed more thought given to it during the structural editing phase.
WhiteForest is set on the edge of Hampstead Heath just after the Crimean war. The main character, a young woman called Jane Silverlake, can hear the souls of man-made objects (we’re already on shaky conceptual ground here.) Of course, all the noise is rather annoying which is why she likes the peaceful silence she hears from nature.
Her ‘talent’ can be experienced by others when she touches them, and when her friend Nathan Ashe discovers this, he undertakes a series of experiments with Jane to try to understand her talent. After his return from the Crimea he becomes interested in a secretive cult led by Ariston Day, a charismatic mystic, and soon after disappears from the streets of Victorian London without a trace.
White Forest is essentially a mystery as Jane and her other friend, Madeline Lee try to work out what happened to Nathan while keeping their secrets from the famed Inspector Vidocq who is undertaking his own investigation. The search for answers leads the girls into danger, mysticism, and eventually to Jane’s discovery of the nature and extent of her power. Readers wanting to confirm their beliefs about the dangerous nature of cults will find plenty to satisfy them here.
The writing is good, as is the pacing, characterisation, story arc (apart from the vague ending) and so on, but I feel that the concept hasn’t been fully thought through. There’s great potential here, but it needs more work to make it believable and accessible. As it is, we aren’t sure what is meant by the ‘soul’ of objects—isn’t a soul something only sentient beings have? This is probably just a poor use of the word. I would suggest ‘inner vibration’ or some such term would have more accurately described what the author was talking about.
The basic assumption that there is something inherently pure beneath the surface of the world is philosophically sound, but that it is viewed as a white forest populated with white apes, accessible via the talents of a woman who hears the ‘souls’ of inanimate objects and exists within the physical being of a woman is highly suspect. Though some of the images later in the book hint at a deeper understanding, they lack the clarity of context required for us to make sense of them. The nature of and relationship of this ‘pure state’ to reality is unclear and perhaps that is the main flaw.
There may well be some Pagan deity called the Lady of the Flowers, and perhaps the imagery used belongs in that context, but it still needs to be woven into a contemporary novel in such a way as to make sense.
Apart from the conceptual issues which, as someone with a strong background in philosophy, I am more picky on than most, I didn’t like the main characters. Jane is dour and dull, Madeline is duplicitous and shallow, and Nathan manipulative. My favourite character was Pascal. His sweet innocence and loyalty was refreshing.
The overall mood was also too dark for my taste, and an end that could have had an uplifting nature was as dour as the main character herself. I give it 2 stars. I expect better conceptual/structural editing from Simon & Schuster