I happened upon this book during a slow day at work. When work is slow I usually meander up and down the aisles, reading the first chapters of books that have interesting covers (yes, I judge books by their covers, don’t tell you me don’t). I was instantly intrigued by The White Forest, so much so that I bought it immediately and started reading it that night (despite being in the midst of two other books already). It was one of those books that I actually looked forward to reading every night.
The White Forest by Adam McOmber
First of all, I’m a bit surprised this book was written by a man. I’ll admit I never pay attention to the author unless it’s someone I’ve read before. I’ll also admit that ALL of my favorite authors are women. Having said that, Adam McOmber writes in such a beautiful way it’s almost poetic. His descriptions were fantastic and his ability to so accurately portray the thoughts of a young female in Victorian London was impressive.
The White Forest focuses on the friendship between Jane and Maddy as they vie for the attention of Nathan Ashe. However, that friendship is constantly tested when Nathan discovers Jane’s secret – she has a “talent” to see and hear the souls of man-made objects. Jane’s world is filled with the constant singing and screaming of objects. They emit color and sound that most people are immune to, except Jane. Unfortunately her talent is easily transferred to another person just by touching her skin – this transference has caused Jane to become something of a hermit; her maids refuse to touch her, calling her a demon from Hell, her best friend, Maddy, shudders when their arms brush, and though she doesn’t say it outright, she thinks of Jane as a bit of an abomination. Only Nathan, tall dark & handsome Nathan, is delighted by Jane’s talent and requests to perform experiments with her at every chance he gets.
Nathan becomes so obsessed with Jane’s talent that he commits his life to the research of it. He joins a cult lead by Ariston Day, an evil man who preaches about paradise on Earth and a heaven-like dimension known as the Empyrean, a dimension to which Nathan believes Jane is the doorway. The cult members, or fetches, meet in the Theater of Provocation – a crude underground theater that no one can ever seem to find the entrance to. Then Nathan goes missing. Jane begins to see flashes of the theater of horrors when she comes into contact with Nathan’s objects. Her talent is also changing, rather than meaningless color and sound, she begins to see a white forest behind the veil of the objects, and she begins to wonder if Nathan was right.
This book is a coming-of-age story as much as it is a gothic masterpiece. Jane and Maddy slowly break apart as their feelings for Nathan intensify and they realize that the three of them cannot remain friends forever. Maddy, consumed by jealousy, proves more and more that she is willing to do anything to win Nathan’s heart. Jane, knowing she could never compete with Maddy’s beauty, grows more and more bitter towards Nathan who is using her only to experience her talent. Having been raised by her father, Jane begins to wonder about her mother – the strange woman who died on the heath muttering about the Lady of the Flowers. Jane discovers a history that seems far too fantastic to believe but makes more and more sense as the story progresses.
I considered giving this book 4 stars based on the weirdness of the ending (really, it gets weird), but I realized it’s just a convention of classic gothic literature. It somehow works. In the author’s note Mcomber explained that he tried to write the historical elements as accurately as he could; if he could create a believable Victorian London with believable characters, then the fantastic and paranormal aspects of the story would be believable as well. He did a wonderful job. He created a new London that served to camouflage the strangeness of the Empyrean, hidden just beyond perception. His characters, though a bit strange, suffered from normal ailments of human emotion and coming-of-age while also delving into the unknown of other dimensions; disappearing theaters, screaming objects, otherworldly religions, and ultimately the white forest.
This book deserves to be ranked among the classics.