Here’s one of those books that seemed to scream my name. Sold as “part fairy tale, part horror story” would have been enough, but the story of a love affair gone bad and a woman dealing with the aftermath was what sold it. It’s also a nicely short work that fits really well into my reading challenge and readathon plans. 🙂
NORTHWOOD: A NOVELLA
by Maryse Meijer
Published by: Black Balloon Publishing, 2018
Ebook: 128 pages
My rating: 7/10
First sentence: I don’t want you anymore.
Part fairy tale, part horror story, Northwood is a genre-breaking novella told in short, brilliant, beautifully strange passages. The narrator, a young woman, has fled to the forest to pursue her artwork in isolation. While there, she falls in love with a married man she meets at a country dance. The man is violent, their affair even more so. As she struggles to free herself, she questions the difference between desire and obsession—and the brutal nature of intimacy. Packaged with illustrations by famed English artist Rufus Newell and inventive, white-on-black text treatments by award-winning designer Jonathan Yamakami, Northwood is a work of art as well as a literary marvel.
Okay, let me tell it to you true. When I opened this book, my very first thought was “Oh man, is this all in verse?”. And it’s not that I don’t like poetry in general, I just didn’t expect this book, which is called Nortwood: A Novella to be told in verse. So I went into it with a bit of discomfort, because I’m just not a fan of free verse and I don’t think the way the letters are arranged on the page can make up for any lack of talent. It’s an unnecessary flourish that mostly feels pretentious to me. All the more impressive, then, that this book turned my opinion right around.
While the style didn’t really gel with me (not even by the end), it also didn’t get in the way of the storytelling. And boy, what a story Meijer has to tell! You wouldn’t think a book this slim, and told in verse, could pack such a punch, but I had to put it down several times and watch cute animal videos on Youtube because it was just so tough to read and some chapters really got to me.
So what’s this about? A young woman goes to live in a hut in the wood to escape city life and focus on her art. There, she meets an older married man, begins an affair with him that includes a lot of violence (some or even most of it consensual? It’s kind of hard to tell). When the affair ends and she goes back to the city, she can’t let go and her obsession with him grows ever stronger. And thus Meijer takes us down a terrifying spiral with her protagonist, told in so few words, but so powerful that I couldn’t finish the book in one sitting. Even though at that page count, and with the way poetry is just quick to read, I should have been able to easily.
Poetry, much like visual arts, is very much a matter of taste. There are few poets that I like but those few, I love. Even with poetry that’s not up my alley, I can often appreciate it for what it does, understand the work that went into it and see what the author is doing. When it gets too transparent, however, I get annoyed. Mariyse Meijer writes her poems as chapters, some of which are very different from others. The ones I disliked the most where the “artistically arranged” ones, where the font crawls across the page, where you definitely don’t get anything resembling a sentence, rather snippets of half-sentences. That just doesn’t work for me, so those chapters left me cold.
But the slightly longer chapters, the ones that still don’t have complete sentences (because, hey, it’s poetry) but that tell a story, those were pretty amazing. Without me even noticing, I slipped into the story and watched with horror how the protagonist became more and more unhinged. Sometimes crude words are thrown into the otherwise rather… well, poetic verses, probably for shock value. Well, they did shock me but they also jarred me out of the narrative because they didn’t feel like they belong. I’m not sure that was the intended purpose but it definitely had an effect.
I felt the ending was also a bit of a letdown. I wasn’t really expecting anything – it could have gone either way. With our protagonist ruining her own life completely because of her unhealthy obsession, with her getting out of it, experiencing a rebirth of sorts. There were so many more possibilites, but the ending the author chose wasn’t really satisfying to me. This book built up so much emotion that the actual ending fell rather flat. But still, I am impressed that a book which I approched with a certain degree of prejudice managed to grab me the way it did and make me deeply, deeply uncomfortable.
MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good