The White Forest by Adam McOmber (Touchstone, 2012, 320pp.)
Set in Victorian London, The White Forest centers on a trio of friends: Nathan Ashe (son of a Parliament member), Madeleine Lee (daughter of a photographer socially exiled for his lascivious photography), and Jane Silverlake, whose mother went raving mad before dying an early death.
Jane, who serves as the novel’s narrator, has a special, if somewhat bizarre, ability to see the “souls” of inanimate, manmade objects. Furniture, pottery, and statues give off strange light and emit sounds, caused by what some would think of as an aural/auditory migraine (but isn’t). Even stranger is the fact that behind those objects lurks a hidden world, a kind of “backstage area” for the universe, if you will. The “White Forest,” as she calls it, is stark and barren and completely white.
Trouble begins after Nathan, who has become aware of Jane's “affliction,” discovers that by touching her bare skin, he too can see what she sees. Eager to know more about the universe itself, he encourages an ever reluctant Jane to experiment with her abilities. But the experiments change Nathan. Not satisfied with his contact with Jane, he enrolls in a cult led by the charismatic leader Ariston Day.
Day is a peculiar figure, one that the girls instantly dislike as Nathan describes their cult meetings to them. Day claims that cities like London are blights upon the natural world. Mankind will never reach enlightenment and understanding until civilization is razed to the ground, and the natural world is allowed to flourish. Weeks after joining the cult, Nathan vanishes. Maddy and Jane fear the worst, and set out to investigate his disappearance. But then Jane is contacted by Ariston Day himself. Nathan has told him about the White Forest, and he is very interested in getting to know Jane…
Although the premise is, yes, a little strange, the story works. It works primarily because of its firm roots in a very vividly described Victorian London, and from the interactions of the three main protagonists. But this sense of humanity is lost towards the end, as Jane is forced to physically leave her world and enter the White Forest (to save the world, of course). To put it simply, things in the White Forest get weird and stay weird from that point on. This is extremely unfortunate, because although the ending works well in context with the rest of the story, it’s still a bit disappointing. I can’t really tell you to stop 30 pages before the end, because the action leading up until that point is so suspenseful. So, despite these flaws, my verdict is: if you like spooky, creepy stories and Victorian London (and honestly, who doesn’t?) go ahead and give it a try.
Click on cover for image source.