Book Review - The Story of the Forest

Linda Grant began her writing career as a journalist and didn’t publish her first novel until she was in her 40s. Since then, her novels have won major literary prizes and her latest, The Story of the Forest, was shortlisted for this year’s Orwell Prize for Political Fiction. The novel is a powerful reminder of the many reasons people move, the difficulties of integrating in a new environment, and how generational memories shape our identities.

In 1913, 14-year-old Mina Mendel, naive and inquisitive, goes foraging for mushrooms in a forest on the edge of the Baltic Sea. She’s the daughter of a prosperous Jewish family living in Riga, Latvia. In the forest, she meets a gang of boisterous young men who claim to be Bolsheviks: “agents of the coming revolution”. She finds it exhilarating to dance with them.

When she returns (as she inevitably does), she kisses one of the men, not realising that her brother Itzik, a malcontent, is spying on her. Jossel, her eldest brother, learns of her boldness and tries to avert potential disaster. He believes Mina will either be raped or their father will panic: “driven by shame and family honour, he would sacrifice a lively young girl to the shadchan [matchmaker], and his high-jinks sister would be married off in a month to some hastily selected old widower with hairs in his nostrils who would oppress and destroy her spirit.”

To escape this terrible fate, Jossel and Mina decide to emigrate to America. They land in Liverpool, where a lack of funds, followed by war, prevents them from travelling further. Jossel marries a young widow, and is shipped off to fight in the Battle of Gaza. On his return, Louis Polack, the Polish friend whose life he saved, feels duty bound to marry Mina.

Like many a fairytale, the family’s fortune hinges on that fateful trip into the woods. Grant was herself born in Liverpool, descended from Polish-Russian Jewish immigrants. She has said that growing up with few documents meant that she relied on oral stories in order to piece together her family’s history. In The Story of the Forest, Grant conveys this sense of verbal testimony through the use of anecdotes and stories handed down through the generations of the Mendel family. Inevitably this imbues their past with the quality of a fable: What’s real, imagined, or tradition?

Grant vividly recreates the postwar Jewish immigrant community of Liverpool’s Brownlow Hill and, later, the family’s move to the suburbs with their children despite the hostile reception. The Polacks (who have adopted the name Phillips in order to better assimilate) soon receive a hate letter, signed “Anti-Jew”.

In the years after the Second World War, Mina and Jossel learn what happened to the rest of their family – inevitably some met with tragedy. Meanwhile, Mina’s daughter, Paula, almost escapes her predetermined future – “a good Jewish daughter, destined to become a good Jewish wife and a good Jewish mother” – when she moves to London. There she meets Itzik who turns up, like a bad penny – “an official snitch” for the Soviet Union – and continues to attempt to destabilise the family.

The novel shifts tone when Paula is willingly seduced by two unscrupulous men and begins to hang out in cool Soho. One is a presenter on radio; the other, a film producer, is her new boss. But it is not to be. She is “rescued” by her brothers and reluctantly returned to the bosom of her family in Liverpool.

In most folktales it is intrepid young men who set out on a journey. Grant subverts this expectation, using the bids for freedom of Mina and later Paula as the catalysts for her narrative. Weaving together the personal and political to great effect, The Story of the Forest is a tale that encompasses most of the 20th century, touching on enduring themes of displacement, survival and the search for personal fulfilment.

Originally published by New Humanist