Under the volcano

Gone to the Forest, by Katie Kitamura, Clerkenwell, RRP£10.99/Free Press RRP$15, 196 pages

Katie Kitamura’s debut novel The Longshot (2009) was a much-praised work set in the ultra-male world of mixed martial arts fighting. Her second book, Gone to the Forest, focuses on decay, murder, civil war and rape. She does not, it seems fair to say, favour the easy narrative “sell”.

The story opens as revolution and a volcanic eruption threaten colonial life at an unspecified time in an unnamed (Spanish-speaking) country. There is no context or setting other than barest family history: “Tom’s father was among the first of the white settlers. Forty years ago, the old man arrived in the country and claimed his piece of land.”

We see most of the shocking events unfold through Tom’s passive, unquestioning perspective. He manages the family estate and its fishing business that once attracted tourists from all over the world. But we are left in no doubt about who is in charge: “The old man is imperious with guests in the same way he is imperious with his servants.”

When a young woman is brought to the farm, Tom belatedly realises she is meant as a wife for him. “He takes the girl fishing and a week later they are engaged.” His small world is expressed in the language of animal instincts and property ownership. As Tom says of Carine, his intended bride: “[She is] this patch of land that will soon be his. It is small – a mere one foot by five feet and barely a hundred pounds – but it will be his, to do with as he likes. This plot of earth. That he will take to his bed as he likes”. Tom does not take Carine to bed. He is in fact “the only one who did not know” about many unpalatable things – including the fact that his father and a group of friends had raped her as after-dinner entertainment. “Like a dog or a rat or a pig. Quick as a dog, too, and it was on to the next one.”

As months pass, the sense of dread mounts and the war comes inexorably closer. Tom’s neighbours are slaughtered in their home: “A trio of flies buzzes around Mrs Wallace’s head. One and then another lands on her open eye. Which is turning to jelly, her eyes are decaying quickly in the heat.” Meanwhile, the old man is dying quietly in his bed. The details of decline are beautifully observed: “His body is very loud despite the stillness, it is making more noise than it made in all its life.”

Kitamura’s clipped prose gives away very little of the back story; fixed in the present, we are carried onward through staccato bursts and abrupt sentences. “These are times of trouble but they are family. The girl is family. Even in her current state. Tom can understand.” The style is at first annoying and seems clumsy, yet the cumulative effect of this shocking, desperate book is something that approaches magnificent.

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