book review: the wood of suicides
The Wood of Suicides by Laura Elizabeth Woollett is intensely engaging, thought-provoking and disturbing. The psychosexual exploration of obsession, seduction, and power dynamics in relationships looks at attachments that transgress social boundaries.
The Wood of Suicides is loosely based around the Greek myth of Apollo and Daphne. The god Apollo, a powerful and great warrior, falls in love with beautiful maiden Daphne and pursues her. She resists and calls upon her father to cast a spell of enchantment; her limbs are then turned into the boughs of a tree and she becomes one with the earth.
In the prologue, the author asks the reader: what did Daphne see when her arms hardened into boughs and her world was choked with green?
Written in first person, the book is told through the bright voice of seventeen-year-old Laurel Marks, the troubled daughter of an intellectual and sensuous woman. Laurel’s voice is unusually mature beyond her years; it is sophisticated and introspective, and not altogether convincing for a seventeen-year-old girl. Though poetic, eloquent and melancholy, her person has a sense of being from another time, an idea that is only amplified by the author’s reference to femininity in Pre-Raphaelite paintings.
Identifying herself as obedient, perverse and craving a sense of order and patriarchy, Laurel displays an inner torment that manifests itself as repressed romantic feelings towards her father. Her unbalanced idolization of the male sex informs a self-hatred and self loathing. Her interest in her intellectual, ill father borders on the sexual, as she fantasizes about utilizing her familial likeness to her own mother as a means to seduce him. It may come as no surprise then that Laurel doesn’t display any human warmth or love for her mother, and sees her in a demeaning and calculating light, stained with jealousy and resentment: ‘I had loved my mother once… but early on I outgrew her, and my love soured like milk into something that resembled contempt.’
After her father passes away from illness, Laurel’s feelings are conflicted and unsettled as she begins life at a new boarding school and immediately latches onto a new love object: her poetry teacher, Hugh Steadman. He is a middle-aged, married man with a fondness for the company and energy of schoolgirls.
Through brute desirability, Steadman exudes a seductive power over the besotted Laurel, and this has a profound effect on her body, mind and consequential actions:
I was at leisure, not only to look and listen, but to love and be lulled by his smoothness, by the play of light and shadow of his features, and the solidity of his presence… I was lulled into a trance of adoration, which showed through the slackening of my posture, the sprawl of my limbs, the fingers tugging and caressing at the grass with unwarranted urgency.
The protagonist’s attraction to Steadman begins as a deep appreciation of his masculine beauty; she admires the lines of his face and craftsmanship of his features.
Laurel feels a new sensation of refreshment from the sight of her own body, and a growing awareness of the power in her sexuality. Within this, though, there exists an internal conflict as she comes to terms with a stark disgust of her own womanhood.
Eager for the attention of her new god-like figure, Laurel begins to preen herself, scheming ways to garner Steadman’s admiration and approval and collecting gems of information that she finds about him to fuel her pervasive obsession. They begin an affair which is fundamentally driven by fantasy and carnal desire in both parties. After her first sexual encounter, which was not entirely pleasant, Laurel begins to feign desperation for his total possession:
I want you. There was a time when I may have been able to express the sentiment less crudely, yet it is too late now. I no longer understand how to quiver modestly, how to hide sweet, delicate blushes. Now I am wracked with convulsions, burned by the fires of hell. If I am a virgin, it is only in the most trivial, membranous sense of the word. Please, make my damnation official. I ask only that you rid me of this technicality.
The main foundation of the book is the interplay of power between the two. It is a tragic encounter doomed from the beginning, with Laurel’s feelings based almost entirely in fantasy, as she utilizes Steadman to fill an emotional void left by her unresolved feelings for her late father. For her lover, Laurel’s melancholic, youthful beauty is intoxicating, striking his most primal impulses and fondling a hungry ego.
However, Laurel begins to resent a true and real commitment to Steadman, as she crumbles under the inevitable weight of negotiating reality. Their relationship becomes mythic and unreal, and leads them both down a path of destruction.
For all its excessive undulations, Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s first novel is still a fantastic read. The writing is poetic and profound, although I might add a little strained and indulgent. In essence, The Wood of Suicides is an affecting and brilliantly insightful book that demonstrates remarkable talent of a young female author.