[Peepal Tree Press; 2022]
“I’m not a scholar, Elisabete, but I think there are too many halves.”
Angela Barry’s novel The Drowned Forest has more than two halves. Is that the same thing as saying it has too many? Well, I’m not so sure.
This is a novel about form, whether it likes it or not. And I would guess the author and the characters have their fair share of ambivalence about that, but I would also guess that they recognize there is no other way to tell this story than with a coy yet thorough approach to form, one that does not commit to any single method but instead emphasizes the exploratory process of sampling a variety of ways to tell the story.
The novel is set in present-day Bermuda and revolves about a young, poor Bermudan girl named Genesis. After a series of misfortunes and missteps, Genesis is entrusted by a court to a set of privileged, do-gooder Bermudan women in what is likely her final chance to live outside the Bermudan foster and carceral systems. We are focused on Genesis’s quest for a new beginning and her efforts to unpack a traumatic past. That is the plot, the microcosm of the book. The macrocosm is Bermuda gingerly searching for a way forward, while literally dredging up a drowned, difficult past. This process is represented by the actual drowned forest recovered and brought—again, literally—to the surface by a team of researchers.
As you could probably infer, The Drowned Forest is a novel about colonialism. Though it would seem wrong to call it either a colonial or a postcolonial novel. It is more about the way colonialism invents and instantiates an alternative world, one that is imposed by outsiders but nonetheless implicates the imaginations of formerly colonized peoples when they have to find a way to process the irreversible facts of colonialism’s effect on their country and their individual lived experiences. It is this paradox—synthesizing the real with parts of the unreal—that makes form so central. How to contain, explore, and refract efforts at historical continuity for a country that went through something as distorting as colonialism? With multiple halves. At least.
This book is in certain ways a pastiche of almost every theme and trope you have ever encountered in fiction concerned with colonialism. There is the metropole male Hugh (even if he is technically Welsh and not English) having a sexual relationship with the “native” girl—probably the oldest, most ubiquitous metaphor for colonial exploitation. There is an interrogation of epistemological power dynamics. Below, I quote at length a passage which one could easily find echoed in Ulysses and A Suitable Boy. The exchange is a from tutoring session between Hugh and Genesis:
‘Genesis . . . there’s only one science. One knowledge. And it’s for everybody.’
‘Oh yeah? If it’s for everybody, why isn’t this stuff . . . this pilot, this map . . . your goddamn root . . . Why isn’t it in schools? The schools where people like me go. Why isn’t it there?’
‘Knowledge is for everybody. But people have to want it. To use it.’
Genesis stopped dead in her tracks.
‘So it’s our fault that we don’t know shit!’ She raised her eyes to the ceiling. ‘Whose side are you on anyway?’
‘Whose fucking side are you on?’
‘Side?’ Spittle leapt from Hugh’s mouth. ‘There always has to be a side for you, right?’ He gripped the back of his chair and willed himself into silence.
As per convention, the person with power is adamant in the universality and neutrality of the system he champions and is offended by the postcolonial perspective that everything passed from colonizer to colonized is political and saturated with power dynamics.
We get the uncertain future and the simultaneous longings and difficulties of “birthing” authentic cultural ownership metaphorized by the failure to conceive and the death of a child: “They had talked about fostering, maybe adopting . . . She had argued that it wasn’t the same as a child they could call their own.” And the island’s disconnect from its true heritage is represented by the gaps in Genesis’s own memory of her “mother”: “The mother of Genesis. Joy, who had left her child to face the world alone . . . The girl says she has not a single memory of her. Can that be?”
More particular to Bermuda, though I am no expert on this history, is that its national history is not widely thought of as containing global flashpoints of acute, violent colonial struggle. The challenge for Barry is how to dramatize a system of exploitation and violence that was perhaps less overtly physical than in other formerly colonized nations. While postcolonial scholars have of course done a lot to establish a vocabulary and frame for this other kind of colonial oppression, Barry does some of her most nuanced work in articulating the arbitrary nature of the distinction between brute force and more subtle, “bloodless” coercion: “‘Kill? They didn’t put a gun to her head, if that’s what you mean . . . All kinda ways to kill’”
There is also a sort of formal synthesis to show that external knowledge can limit self-understanding, that the impositions of particular frames of context and history-marking prevent local phenomena from being understood in local terms. Instead, they uncomfortably cram other people’s unfamiliar experiences into what is supposed to be a process of excavating one’s own interiority. For example, again in a tutoring session, Hugh compares an instance of Bermudans being exploited to people in the Scottish Highlands being evicted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—in what is known as the “Highland Clearance.” Genesis replies, “How come everything that happens here must have happened someplace else? Someplace you know about?” And concerning a different Bermudan character, one with Portuguese ancestry, we are told: “Whatever she thought, whatever she felt, always came out in these, the words of the bible. She could not even grieve in her own language.”
The familiarity and the variety of Barry’s formal choices have the potential to lead to cliché or a diluted, non-unified aesthetic. The risk of the latter is amplified by the fact that Barry’s story is narrated from the points of view of an alternating, fairly large number of characters. But I do not think, ultimately, Barry’s falls into archetype or blur. This is where form becomes important again. The way colonialism at once recreates, falsifies, alters, distorts, and self-perpetuates whatever it touches means its contrived realities are panoramic. Maybe it does not make sense for a book on this topic to limit itself to just a few dominant metaphors, as that would only cover a fraction of its facets. I believe there is something very intentional to Barry’s paradoxical form, wherein certain pieces tell an entire story but also are part of a larger story, to which they alone cannot possibly do justice.
For example, once Hugh’s sexual affair with Genesis is found out, one of the Bermudan women who was supposed to be supervising and guiding Genesis scolds him. At one point, her admonition touches on the topic of race and its overwhelming implications for any relationship between people of different races. She tells Hugh, “After a year in this island you finally realise that whatever the question is, the answer is race.” But she continues: “Actually, in this case, it’s only part of it.”
Form is the best tool a novelist has to flesh out the strange shape of this situation. In The Drowned Forest, Angela Barry adeptly uses form for the very purpose of portraying a country and its citizens in the midst of a project—one simultaneously unified and diffuse—of excision, addition, revision, invention, and reckoning. Every perspective is given a God-like authority. Every word is somehow the last word. But then there is another word. In a book about the struggle for authenticity amidst artifice, for freedom amidst falsification, her unique form is an expansive and exciting way forward.
Ryan Thier is a writer living in New York City.
This post may contain affiliate links.