- What: Forest Dark
- Who: Nicole Krauss
- Pages: 290, hard cover
- Genre: Contemporary fiction
- Published: 2017
- The lit: of 5 flames
Sometimes flipping the last page of a book leaves us absolutely befuddled.
“What exactly happened here in these few hundred pages to which I devoted significant time, energy, and brain power?”
Fortunately, only a few books spur this thought. Nicole Krauss’ 2017 hit was one of them. For a novel that garnered much attention and praise and made many best-of lists, I was ready to be blown away. Forest Dark, however, left me lost and grasping for more clarity and purpose … not unlike the main characters.
“This is why the rabbis tell us that a broken heart is more full than one that is content: because a broken heart has a vacancy, and the vacancy has the potential to be filled with the infinite.” — Forest Dark
This novel follows two characters who, despite never meeting, find themselves on similar paths marked by shared Jewish backgrounds, disorient, and gaps yearning to be filled.
Jules Epstein has always known how to capture a room. He’s bigger than life, but this audaciousness and drive, which have come to define him, have started to take their toll. Trying to seek more, he attempts to sell away most of his life and travels to Israel. What exactly he’s looking for, he’s not sure, but he’s hoping the land of his ancestors can provide him the answers he seeks.
Meanwhile, Nicole, a famous novelist in Brooklyn, is suffering from writer’s block, a desire to confirm a lingering new dimension, and a failing marriage. Throughout these tumultuous times, she’s given way to the whim; therefore, in the middle of the night, she decides that she too needs direction that only Israel possesses. She packs a bag with the intention of staying at the Hilton Tel Aviv where she’s visited every year since her birth and where Epstein is also staying.
Both characters become involved in grand plots that seem far-fetched yet convincing once they enter Israel. Jules comes into contact with a rabbi who insists he is a direct descendent of King David, and our female lead meets a literary professor who believes he has the secret past to Jewish writer Franz Kafka locked up in a suitcase. It’s her job to finally tell his story.
“In the months after the relationship ends, a person can seem to grow at a lightning rate, like in a nature documentary where weeks of footage is run at high speed to show a plant unfurling in seconds, but in reality the person has been growing all along, under the surface, and it is only in their new freedom, in their hair-raising aloneness, that the person can allow for these underground things to break through and unfurl themselves in the light.” — Forest Dark
These are the extent of the details I can offer because, as I write above, I’m struggling to summarize what happened in this novel, and scouring reviews of it doesn’t give me further insight either; they simply praise its ingenuity. I found myself with more questions by page 290 than answers, which can be incredibly infuriating as a reader — and as a writer.
That’s not to say I felt no sense of intrigue or wanted to close the book prematurely. Krauss is an interesting author who can write beautiful passages (illustrated by the many excerpts I’ve included in this review and others I didn’t have room for). She also knows how to construct mystery, but the moments she was building toward didn’t have resolutions — or at least any that I could interpret.
As Peter Orner points out in his New York Times review, though, maybe the absence of answers is exactly what Krauss had intended.
“And answers, beautiful or otherwise, are precisely what Epstein (and Nicole) are poised to flee,” he writes. “Forest Dark is a novel that, mercifully, embraces and even celebrates not, for once, having answers.”
But I need and want them!
“It’s the unstoppable force and momentum of life that we want to control, and with which we’re locked in a struggle of wills that we can never win.” — Forest Dark
Forest Dark also drips in philosophy and existentialism, two genres that, if I’m going to enjoy, need extensive detail to make them come alive. Krauss seems to care more about the philosophy of writing than following through on the principles about which her characters so passionately argue. She fails to deliver exquisite plots and explicit characters, qualities that define a novel I want to get lost in.
Yes, it’s possible that my feelings better reflect myself — what I crave in a book as well as my inclination to not discuss the deeper meaning of life — than Forest Dark as a novel. Regardless, I didn’t connect with this book.
Fellow Goodreader Jill was on the same page as me (though expressed herself more eloquently):
“If I were a professional book reviewer — which I’m not — I might well have given Forest Dark five stars,” she wrote. “After all, it’s cerebral, intelligently written, thought-provoking, and brilliantly complex. But I am simply a reader who likes to capture my reading experience and share my thoughts with others. And for me, this book was a thing to be admired rather than loved.” (You probably should be a professional book reviewer, Jill.)
I guess loving Forest Dark, which had been on my list for over a year, wasn’t beshert after all.
“There are things we feel to be at the heart of our nature that are not borne out by the evidence around us, and so, to protect our delicate sense of integrity, we elect, however unconsciously, to see the world other than the way it really is. And sometimes it leads to transcendence, and sometimes it leads to the unconscionable.” — Forest Dark
*I also feel it’s necessary to point out that the book jacket’s summary states that Forest Dark is “bursting with life and humor.” A note to my readers: I never felt an onslaught of giggles, so that was deceiving.*