Review by Emily Wojcik
October 15, 2012
When a lonely girl with a baffling “gift”—the ability to see the souls of man-made objects—meets an aristocratic young man and a moody, beautiful young woman, intrigue, jealousy, and the supernatural are bound to follow. Particularly when their friendship is set against the backdrop of gothic London, some time in the mid-nineteenth century, as the Crimean War comes to an end and the western world teeters on the brink of modernity.
As many authors before him have discovered, it’s a setup rich with creative possibility, and in his first novel, The White Forest, Adam McOmber balances the clichés of the genre with gorgeous writing and a dense, twisting plot. The dark corners of a dying aristocracy, and the inevitable triangles that result when bored teenagers find themselves thrown together on the grounds of a half-abandoned manor are in full force. Yet McOmber follows them to intriguing new places, pushing beyond youthful angst to explore the thin line between curiosity and obsession, religion and the occult, love and madness.
Jane Silverlake, who narrates the book and is the unhappy vessel of a very odd psychic gift, tells the story of her friendship with Maddy Lee and Nathan Ashe, both members of a class better than her own—though in the way of such novels, class is both an important character element, and oddly fluid. (Jane’s family owns the aforementioned manor, though its disrepair indicates their diminishing fortunes, while Maddy’s father, an artist, has scandalized London and cost his daughter the family’s reputation.) Nathan, meanwhile, is dilettantish but also, we learn, a veteran of the Crimean War, with troubling memories of the front that play an important role in the mystery that unfolds.
Jane’s mother is dead when the book begins, though her ghost, like that of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (one of several gothic novels to which this book seems to offer a subtle nod), hovers over the action in ways inexplicable and vaguely threatening. The most troubling is Jane’s ability to feel the “souls” of man-made objects, a gift that is a bit nonsensical but proves a unique frame for McOmber’s metaphysical eerieness.
As the novel progresses, we learn that it’s not souls, exactly, but vibrations or auras, some lingering energy that’s partially that of the maker or previous owner, partially a spiritual reaction to the human impulse to impose order over the (super)natural world through manufacturing. Your walls and mirrors and trinkets might make you feel as though you have control over your environment, the novel suggests, but Jane’s gift reveals that this control is tenuous at best and very penetrable. When held onto long enough, the objects create what might best be described as a rent in the veil between our world and another, ghostly dimension that appears as a menacing white forest, inhabited by inhuman figures and a mysterious woman in red.
Nathan is the first to recognize that this is more than just a party trick. Jane has, to this point, alternately wielded her power—which can be transferred temporarily to anyone she touches—as a mode of revenge against disapproving household staff and as a curious experiment. Maddy finds Jane unsettling, but her power draws Nathan ever closer, intensifying the inevitable jealousies between the two girls. When Nathan joins a cult of similarly disaffected, aristocratic boys led by the charismatic and terrifying Ariston Day, his involvement with Jane deepens. The group, known as the Fetches, is interested in a supernatural realm they call the “Empyrean,” to which Nathan believes Jane is a doorway.
As her own understanding of her gift increases, Jane learns that Nathan has disappeared, and she and Maddy must work through their mutual unease to discover what has happened. The cult is, of course, at the heart of the matter, as is a journal Nathan kept during his time in the Crimea, which records events far beyond the scope of battle. A stern real-life French detective (Inspector Vidocq); a crucial trip to the Crystal Palace, a monument to man-made ingenuity built during London’s Great Exhibition of 1851; and the shadow of theatrical deviancy and orgiastic ritual combine to create a labyrinthine plot that touches on the effects of war, the complexities of love, and the flat-out weirdness of 19th century spiritualism.
The White Forest is a fun read, to be sure. I did find myself wishing McOmber had set his novel a little less firmly in the actual world. To explore the post-traumatic stress of a Crimean war veteran in the same manner as one untangles the rather more trite heartbreaks of callous teenagers can get a bit jarring, and the pedant in me had to squelch the urge to fact-check each historical allusion, breaking the spell of McOmber’s words. When you create such a richly imagined version of reality, the truly real sometimes can be an intrusion, not an asset.
Alternately billed as a gothic fantasy for adults and a YA romance, I suspect the YA label does the book more justice. As I’ve gotten older, I find my interest in the love lives of 19-year-olds has waned considerably, while my interest in history and a well-told story has grown. Regardless, teenagers and adults alike will find this novel a solid first outing: well paced, compelling, smart, and just fantastic enough to propel the reader deep into another realm, if only for a few hours.