Available: The Little Black Book of Stories
Influenced by: Henry James, George Elliot
I first read A. S. Byatt’s ‘The Thing in the Forest’ the way in which many of my happiest reading experiences occur – that is, by complete chance.
Several years ago I came across this story in an anthology of O. Henry prize winners, and recently I found it again in her Little Black Book of Stories. It was an unexpected delight, a fine balance of cool and creepy. A story – on the surface – of how two little girls during World War Two are evacuated to a large country mansion where, while on a secret walk, they encounter the thing in the forest. What they see gets carried with them, in different ways, for the rest of their lives.
The fairytale qualities of the piece (its historical roots, the lure and temptations of youth as they explore social constructs and boundaries) are juxtaposed nicely with its contemporary elements: it is a tale of ‘our’ world now, and of ‘theirs’. What I also enjoyed, although this only occurred to me after I finished, was how it was a ‘womanly’ story: the author is female; all the characters are female. The ‘Thing’ is sexless – or at least, that question is open-ended. Not that it especially matters: the theme of the story is how the loss of innocence – by whatever means, through accident or cause – is a fact of life. But how one chooses to face these hardships is a test of character. This is what the two girls (now women) learn by the end of the story.
When I finish the story, I usually sit and think for a moment about the hurdles I’ve had to jump in my life. What those characters inspire within me is a drive to develop resilience, to not be afraid of what life throws up (the repetition of the word “anxiety” several times at the beginning is obviously deliberate), both for me and my daughter as I raise her.
This is why I love it.
Karen Andrews has been blogging officially since 2006, but can date her online journaling back to 2003. Her site is Miscellaneous Mum and is ranked well so far as those ranking algorithms go, but she’s happier more with the opportunities it has presented thus far. She’s also a published, award winning writer. She also publishes over at Miscellaneous Press.