Louis Nowra is one versatile and prolific writer, having written novels, non-fiction, plays and screenplays, essays and even libretti. Into that forest is his latest work. It was shortlisted for the Young Adult Novel prize in the 2012 Aurealis awards and the Ethel Turner Young People’s Literature prize in this year’s NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. I read this for my reading group. We don’t often do youth literature but every now and then one pops up that we think might interest us … such as a book by Nowra.
The first thing to say is that the novel is written in a unique voice. Here is its opening:
Me name be Hannah O’Brien and I be seventy-six years old. Me first thing is an apology me language is bad cos I lost it and had to learn it again. But here’s me story and I glad to tell it before I hop the twig.
And what a story it is … this novel feeds into several Australian, and wider, literary traditions. There’s the lost child and the feral child motifs (reminding me of Dog boy). There’s Tasmanian Gothic, and there’s also a bit of the fairy-tale about it. Subject-wise it covers some significant ground: environmental issues (involving both the extinct Tasmanian tiger and the whaling industry) and what we’d now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This might sound rather mechanistic, but there’s no sense of “ticking off”. It’s not didactic, and it’s all logical within the framework of the book.
Set in the late 19th century, it tells the story of two young girls, Hannah (then 6) and Becky (7) who find themselves lost in the bush (oops, forest!) after their boat capsizes in a storm and Hannah’s parents drown. They are taken in by a Tasmanian Tiger pair, and live with them for four years. Meanwhile, Becky’s father, Mr Carsons, is out looking for her. Eventually they are found, but the process of re-integration is not easy. The novel has a small cast of characters, which keeps it tightly focused. Besides Hannah’s parents who die near the beginning, there’s our two young protagonists, Becky’s father, his friend Ernie, the “tiger man”, a few other minor characters – and of course, the tigers, named Dave and Corinna by Hannah.
As in Dog boy, the description of life with the tigers is pretty visceral. At first Becky resists living like a tiger – perhaps because she still has a father whom she hopes will find her – but eventually she too succumbs, if succumb is the word. It is, after all, a matter of survival. And so they shed their clothes, start to move mostly on all fours, and develop keen animal instincts (of sight, hearing and smell). They also develop a taste for raw food and become adept at hunting. The descriptions of killing and eating the prey are not for the squeamish – “I were starving and the taste of blood made me feel even more hungry” and “What were ever in that shiny pink gristle surged through me in waves of ecstasy” – but they are important to our understanding of what their lives had become. Hannah says:
God knows where me sense of survival came from. Maybe it’s natural cos humans are just animals too.
There is a bogey man here – the tiger man or bounty hunter, whom Hannah had met before, through her parents. To the girls he is more brutal than the tigers. He’s “evil”, kills tiger pups, does “stuff to himself that were rude”. But, perhaps, he’s just another survivor, albeit a not very pleasant one?
While Hannah is the narrator, Becky’s character is the more complex one. She struggles more with the change forced upon them:
She didn’t want to forget. Me? I thought it were stupid to try and remember like Becky did. I didn’t see any use for it. Me English started to shrivel up, like an old dry skin a snake gets rid of. It just lies there in the grass rotting away and then vanishes with the wind. I took to talking in grunts, coughs and hoarse barks like the tigers. This annoyed Becky no end. But it were simple – the tigers understood me. Becky warned I were making a mistake. You will forget your language. You will forget your parents. You are becoming an animal, she’d say. Why argue with her? She were right on every level.
Becky initially fights against the brutality of the hunt – there’s a horrific description of the tigers attacking seals – but then surprises Hannah by rather fearlessly exerting some dominance in the pack. She was of course desperately hungry by then, but it shows Hannah that:
she were really stubborn if she wanted something. She were brave, she were stubborn, she were smart, she were tough.
Unfortunately, Becky is not as tough – or as adaptable – as Hannah thought, and consequently precipitates the novel’s rather shocking conclusion.
It’s a pretty bold novel – but less so than, say, Lord of the flies. There’s plenty to discuss, particularly regarding the subjects I suggested at the beginning of the post. The big theme, though, the one common to feral children books, has to do with defining our nature. What separates human from animal? What would you do to survive – and what would that say about the essence of humanity? Good stuff for young adults, and a gripping read too for we older readers.
Into that forest
Crow’s Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2012
ISBN: 9781743311646 (Kindle ed.)