Author: Louis Nowra
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
RRP: $19.99 (AUD)
*This book was provided by the publisher for review. This has not affected my opinion of it.*
Giveaway: Leave a comment to WIN one of 3 free copies of Into That Forest, courtesy of Allen and Unwin. Details at the bottom of this post!
**UPDATE: This competititon is now closed.**
At the end of her life, 76-year-old Hannah O’Brien tells the story of the day seventy years before when her parents took her and her friend Becky on a rowing trip.
Things go wrong and the girls find themselves alone and lost in the Tasmanian wilderness. They make a new home with a pair of Tasmanian Tigers who have lost their own pups. But the girls who go into that forest will not be the same ones who come out.
How I liked it:
This is a beautiful novel, powerful in its simplicity.
Louis Nowra is perhaps best known as a playwright, having penned some classic Australian drama in his time including the award-winning Così and Radiance; both of which have been made into films. Nowra is also a screenwriter, an adult novelist and writer of non-fiction. Into That Forest is his first novel for young adults and his wealth of writing experience shows in the evocative, seemingly effortless picture he paints.
While simple, the story is not lacking in depth. Nowra explores themes of isolation, savagery, civilisation, family and loss – all while maintaining a pacy, action-driven novel that can be easily read in a sitting.
His choice to depict Tasmanian Tigers, which died out in the 1930s, is a brave one, and he handles it convincingly. Nowra brings these beautiful beasts back to life on the page. Nature too, is a rich character in her own right. Nowra has done his research, and his Tasmanian forest is a vivid backdrop for the action.
Nowra’s storytelling is efficient without becoming clinical. This, the highly visual style and the spare, pithy dialogue are marks of the dramatist in him. The result is a powerful, sensory experience that reflects the starkness of the situation in which the girls find themselves. The fight to survive. The brutality of nature, but also of man.
Nowra’s style is also practical, given the intended audience, some of whom will have shorter attention spans than others.
The notion of language is a central one. Hannah has lost her language and had to relearn it, she tells us on the opening page. As a result her speech is riddled with grammatical errors.
Here, Nowra treads the line deftly between the language adding to the character and distracting from it. And fortunately for adult readers, but also importantly for younger ones, Nowra still allows himself the evocative vocabulary needed to convey the story.
I was very tempted to give this book 4 stars – particularly when I considered it from the point of view of its intended YA audience. In the end I went with 3.5 for two reasons.
First, I thought the character of Hannah was very well drawn, but at times I found Becky’s reactions to situations harder to fathom because her character felt less developed. This was largely, I suspect, because the story is written from Hannah’s first-person perspective. Older and more “civilised” than Hannah to start with, Becky’s journey is in many ways more fascinating than her friend’s, and there were times I would have liked to see her explored a little more fully.
But mostly it was because this book had a tremendous potential for poignancy which I felt it didn’t quite milk to its full extent. There were parts where I longed for it to make me cry, and it came very close, but didn’t quite get there. (And I’m no stone heart. Much to my embarrassment, I recently cried at Disney’s The Fox and The Hound.)
Perhaps this reflects the age group it was written for. I’m not sure about this, though, as Nowra does write plenty of confronting scenes. He doesn’t shirk from the natural violence of the tigers’ hunting instincts for example, and I think that’s as it should be. (In fact, one of the reasons I liked this book – and think it has so much to offer young readers – is that it’s not the idyllic story of two girls living a fairytale with the animals. It’s about the realities of that world, and of the human world the girls have left behind.)
Overall however, I found this an enjoyable, captivating read. (As a yardstick, a 3.5 rating signifies a book somewhere between “above average” and “pretty darn amazing”.) It has plenty to offer both YA and adult readers, and aspiring writers could learn a lot from Nowra’s deft handling of action, story and character development.
This is the kind of book that stays with you well after you close it. Like Hannah’s life in the forest, it will haunt and colour your future. Beautifully.
**UPDATE: This competititon is now closed.**
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