JANUARY 9, 2015
EVEN WITH all the attention that the media devotes to childhood and parenthood, from blog posts and Facebook albums to celebrity “lifestyle” sites and anti-vaccine campaigns, it is rare to see the cultivated veneer of self-congratulatory joy scratched away to reveal the dark materials that so often shape the mental lives of children. While peanut allergies and vaccinations get plenty of airtime in cultural discourse, we hear very little about how a parent’s mental illness can instill a proclivity for violence in a young child, or how a preteen’s fierce sexual energy manifests in unsettling, incestuous attachments to older family members.
In her second novel, Reasons She Goes to the Woods, the Welsh writer Deborah Kay Davies places these topics at the center of her narrative about Pearl, a young girl attempting to navigate a family dynamic that roils between her mother’s erratic mood swings and her father’s ineffective attempts to contain the chaos that they generate. It gradually becomes clear that Pearl’s mother suffers psychotic episodes during which she inflicts violence on her children; as a result, Pearl develops an intense, highly erotic attachment to her father. The novel opens with a chapter called “Pearl and Her Father,” in which an idyllic snapshot of Pearl bouncing on her father’s knee morphs into a detailed description of Pearl orgasming as her father falls asleep: “From the place pressed against her father’s knee she feels a rippling sensation move through her body, as if a delicate, frilled mushroom were expanding, elongating, filling her up.” One of the novel’s plot threads thus traces Pearl’s emerging Electra complex, and a Freudian critic would find ample fodder for analysis in how Pearl competes with her mother — often viciously — for her father’s affections.
Pearl’s behavior, puzzling to outsiders, largely derives from a basic instinct to survive. As mold eats away at the contents of her closet and her mother serves “food that looks like it came from a joke shop,” Pearl assembles an arsenal of coping mechanisms that range from climbing tall trees to devising creative ways to injure her friends and younger brother, whom she refers to as “The Blob.” Like Raskolnikov and Gatsby, Pearl is a protagonist whose determination to overcome unfavorable circumstances tempts readers to forgive, or at least to overlook, her questionable ethics. In Reasons She Goes to the Woods, the tension that the third-person narrator sustains between rapturous wonder at the natural world and harrowing psychological excavation makes Pearl’s story compelling to read, despite the spine-chilling turns that it frequently takes.
In many respects, Reasons She Goes to the Woods is best read alongside Davies’s first novel, True Things About Me, published in 2010. As a diptych, the novels take slightly different tacks on exploring a similar set of provocations about identity and normativity, drawing on a common reservoir of character traits, structural patterns, and descriptive imagery to probe variations on a deceptively simple question: “Was there anyone else like me? […] Why couldn’t I be a regular girl?” The first-person narrator of True Things poses these questions as she sinks further into the murk and mess of an erotic obsession that starts with a quickie in an underground tunnel and ends with bruises, blood, theft, and a final, cathartic act of retaliatory violence.
In both novels, the spirals toward madness arise largely out of the protagonists feeling radically out of place in their respective environments — True Things’s narrator in her tidy square of suburban comfort and Pearl in her disorderly household and even, fundamentally, in her human skin. Pearl ameliorates that discomfort by escaping into the nearby woods and imagining her body fused into the natural landscape: “She dreams that the roof of her mouth is crammed with innumerable grubs. It feels as if they are packed deep inside her head, growing fat.” True Things’s nameless narrator, on the other hand, becomes ensnared in a Freudian web of delusions about splitting into multiple selves, frequently talking to mirrors and visualizing another copy of her body in the room. A particularly striking image arises out of the contrast that the narrator observes between her own domestic life and that of her neighbors:
After posting squares of toast into my mouth and systematically swallowing, I arranged myself on the sofa in front of the TV. Just on the off-chance someone looked in through the window. There I’d be, lounging, engrossed in a programme. In fact, I sat there like a mannequin. The real me was groping about, banging into things, ripping my hair, shredding my cheeks.
Here as elsewhere, Davies’s prose burrows so deeply into the character’s psyche that it becomes difficult to tell which body the narrator is actually occupying — the passive, affectless couch-potato or the manic hair-puller whirling through the house. (Given this first-person narrator’s track record for unpredictable behavior, it really could be either.) That line between a character’s interior life and her embodied movement through the world becomes smudged in Reasons She Goes to the Woods as well, notably during a scene wherein Pearl, in art class, works feverishly on a drawing for three hours: “Here is the ink-black hair, here the strong, pliant neck. A naked back, perfect legs. Inhuman eyes; blank and brown. The page is hardly big enough for the unspeakable things she draws.” Although this reads like a vivid enough description of Pearl’s artwork, the chapter’s final sentence explodes whatever trust we might have placed in that narration: “There is silence in the classroom as everyone crowds near the table and examines Pearl’s completely blank sheet.” In both novels, these uncanny moments probe the uncertain space between a narrator’s words and a character’s mind, placing the reader into a position of estrangement that approximates how these characters think and feel in relation to others.
Similar motifs run through the fabric of both novels: each, for example, features an extended dream sequence in which the protagonist drowns in a shipwreck. Taken together, these scenes display Davies’s ability to describe ecstatic, even sublime encounters between humans and nature, and also to explore how both characters handle catastrophe. In Pearl’s vision, “her swollen tongue hangs out of her mouth like a sand-filled sock” and “the sun bakes her skin and frazzles her hair,” while True Things’s protagonist spots an iceberg whose “freezing breath rushed at us, spiking our lashes and hair with stinging crystals.” The outcomes of these two nightmares mark a crucial difference between how Pearl and the “I” of True Things react to disaster: the latter sinks under the weight of her waterlogged limbs and clothes, while Pearl comes to realize that the vast, imaginary ocean is “more beautiful than anywhere else.” Despite her youth, Pearl never balks at physical pain; rather, she grows more powerful and, in her own mind, more ravishing with each blow. She maintains an almost tyrannical superiority over her friends by bruising their skin or forcing them to eat poisoned berries, yet her violent impulses are masochistic as well as sadistic. At one point, she jumps out of a high tree, badly fractures her leg, and ultimately concludes that “she is even more beautiful now, with the marks like a secret message only she can read.” The novel, therefore, builds an airtight interior world in which marks of injury form their own sign system, providing Pearl with a new dialect through which to articulate her turbulent emotions.
By reusing tropes like the shipwreck dream down to the subtlest detail (hair, one notices, crusts in both descriptions), Davies risks sounding like a writer whose toolbox is understocked or whose vision is concentrated around a narrow set of preoccupations. Reading the novels together, however, reveals that Davies is not so much recycling language as holding ideas and images up to the light, turning them around and observing how they refract different narrative and characterological materials. Despite the age difference between the two protagonists — the narrator of True Things seems to be in her late twenties while Pearl is still a child — Pearl more effectively channels her imagination toward efforts to stay afloat amidst the maelstrom of abuse wrought by her family, while the “I” of True Things finds peace in letting herself sink.
In certain respects, Reasons She Goes to the Woods is a more ambitious novel than True Things, for writing the perspective of a child involves maintaining a balance between psychological attentiveness and the confusion that stems from being simply too young to identify disorder and process trauma. The reader thus learns about the mother’s condition at exactly the same rate as Pearl does. We spot the first red flag in a chapter called “No,” during which Pearl accompanies her mother to the supermarket and gradually realizes that something is amiss: “Pearl glances at her mother, who’s in her slippers, nightdress billowing out from her half-undone coat. Pearl thinks the filmy pink fabric looks rude in the shop. As her mother picks up a bag of sugar, Pearl can hear her talking in an undertone, asking the sugar questions.” Writing in third-person, Davies can employ the syntax and vocabulary of an adult while limiting narrative perspective to only what Pearl could reasonably grasp at such a young age. The infatuation that Pearl develops toward her father unfolds at a similarly controlled pace, in scenes that offer fleeting glances into the sexual frisson she feels while sitting “astride her father’s knee,” or serving him tea, or standing before him in a scant bikini. A novelist could easily cudgel such taboos into melodrama, yet Davies approaches her discomfiting subjects like one would a cold river, dipping in limb by limb rather than immersing one’s body on first contact.