The Thing in the Forest – Review

just started reading Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt. It’s a collection of short stories so I thought I would do something different and review each individual story rather than waiting and reviewing the entire book. Ideally, a collection of short stories will come together over some larger theme that is carried out in some way throughout the work but, at the same time, I don’t think a lack of a larger theme (or just a tenuous connection rather than a clear one) should damage the review of the collection if the individual stories are good.

Before I begin, there are spoilers here. A lot of them. So if that bothers you, don’t read on. You have been warned.

the first story in Little Black Book of Stories (LBBS) is called The Thing in the Forest. It begins in the 1940s in Britain when Germany has begun its attempt to either force Britain into surrender or into the stone age with its constant barrage of bombs and missiles. It focuses on two little girls being evacuated from the city who find themselves at a large mansion in the country. Their youth gets the better of them and they decide to venture into the woods a bit with a younger girl tagging along after them. It is in the woods that they encounter what can only be described as a living horror dragging itself through the greenery, leaving a path of destruction and decay in its wake.The girls hide and wait for the monster to pass and you’re left to wonder of the small younger girl who we assume had followed them.

The story then jumps ahead a life time to when the two girls have become older women and have taken different paths in life but still have startling similarities such as the path of their families (fathers die, mothers live, no children/family of their own) and their lives. they just happen to find themselves back at the mansion they had spent the night at years before when they had seen the creature and each confirms the other’s belief that they really had seen something in the woods and that it, in fact, probably did “eat” (we assume it ate her) the girl or at least kill her with its sheer bulk. They don’t talk much and each avoids a dinner meating the next day, instead venturing into the woods alone where neither see the creature again but where one discovers bones in a clearing from their first encounter that may in fact be the little girl’s. The story ends with the one woman at a mall at one of her jobs of watching small children while their parents shop and she begins telling them the story of her encounter with the  beast while the other woman vows to venture back to the woods to see it again.

It seems as if the true horror of the experience was not the experience itself but the effect it seems to have had on the lives of the two girls. Something that was “more real than other things,” as one of the girls describes it, seems to have had the effect of dulling everything else in their lives. Neither seem overly happy or connected in their day to day lives. This isn’t to say they are hermetic recluses tucked away in their cluttered apartments, fearful of the outside, but that the ability to make personal connections has been stripped from them by this beast that lumbered through their lives at a moment when the connection between eachother was the only tie that either had been able to develop. Whatever innocence is required from people to say hello and to open themselves up to the possibility of friendship is the victim of the encounter.

This could be supported by the death of the younger girl who wanted to tag along with them. The younger girl, Alys, is described in various ways that amount to cute, precocious and personable. Where the beast didn’t notice the two older girls, who tried to shun the child, the younger, nice innocent appears to have fallen into its path and was destroyed. It was a physical death to match the psychological death of the two surviving girls.

The timing of their initial encounter with the beast and the publishing of the collection may not be something ignore, either. Set at the onset of WWII, perhaps Byatt is saying something about what the atmosphere of imminent war does to the young who are forced to live through it. In this reading the beast is as much metaphor as reality and the pains the girls suffer, both at the moment of their encounter and throughout their lives, is symbolic for the horrors inflicted on and endured by everyone their age. Which brings us to the time the collection was published, 2003. After 9-11 when a policy of engagement by Bush (and Blair) was taking clear shape, this could be Byatt’s warning shot that the effects of the political/social environment could have far longer lasting repercussions than could be imagined. Outside of the sphere of blame or responsibility of such conflict, it is a warning that people will come away damaged.

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9 Responses to “The Thing in the Forest – Review”

  1. Axel Says:

    So, retaliation/militarism is bad because girls will get eaten by things?

  2. Axel Says:

    Sorry, I forgot.

  3. Just a girl Says:

    Your review from a symbolism point of view seems to be right on…. nicely done.

  4. Heidi Wang Says:

    I have no time to read this before class; and the summery of the plot and the significance behind it is keen and informing. Thank you so much!

  5. Shaina Says:

    the short story itself was written and originally published before 9-11. It was originally published in 2000.

    • charlieblizz Says:

      That’s odd, because there’s no mention of it in the collection of it being published elsewhere first, and Byatt’s copyright is 2003 (and my book’s is 2005). There is usually a copyright listing for a story’s first publication included, if a story has been published elsewhere. I wonder why they’d leave that information out of this collection.

  6. Sageflame Says:

    Actually, according to the bibliography on A.S. Byatt’s personal website, it was originally printed in 2002. With very little digging, I found that it was published as a short story in The New Yorker in 2002. That was the only publishing before it was included in the compilation Little Black Book of Stories in 2003. 🙂

  7. mauslerj1 Says:

    My class had to read this story and we went over it in class. We all were saying that its not actually three different girls but in fact just one girl (Primrose) that just made up these two other girls when it was all just her.

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