Deborah Kay Davies’ first novel, True Things About Me, saw its author selected as one of twelve best new British novelists by the BBC’s Culture show, and was selected by Lionel Shriver as her personal book of 2011. Reasons She Goes to the Woods is a confident and accomplished second novel, and one of only four by British writers on the Bailey’s prize longlist.
The novel traces the growth of its protagonist, Pearl, from young girl to adolescent, with all the confusion, challenge and chaos this implies tightly bound into vignettes of a single page. The layout of the novel is important – the left hand page is blank, bar a title (usually a single word, three at most); the right hand page contains the story. These vignettes never spill beyond the page; the blank pages are welcome respite from the intensity and cruelty contained in the words. It is a bold decision on the part of the author, and leaves a great deal to the reader’s imagination. Very little is spelled out; Pearl’s increasingly seductive attitude towards her father, her mother’s unstable mental health, her fearful cruelty to her little brother (the Blob) and her compliant, delicate friend Fee, are all suggested in subtle, dark tones and then left hanging, for the reader to weave into stories of their own.
As in the original Grimm fairy tales, the woods are a place of freedom, but also a place of fear, and Pearl is at once perpetrator and victim. The strength of the writing lies in Pearl’s connection with the woods – the writing is boldly sensual, and reflects Pearl’s emerging womanhood, as well as her lack of control. At its best, Reasons She Goes to the Woods is reminiscent of Angela Carter, but where Carter wove magic into her tales, Davies relies on the qualities of the natural world – the trees, the soil, the mud and insects, the wonders and the threat of running water – which Pearl inhabits like a dryad to whom the established mores of human relationships do not apply.
The tight, short chapters and the bleak horror of some of the episodes will not appeal to every reader. But then, appealing to every reader is not, and should not be, the aim of a writer. This is a challenging, demanding read; if Davies and Shriver ever get together to talk about Kevin and Pearl, I would love to listen in.