Book Review / Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss

John Mancy reviews Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss.

Forest Dark is an ambitious novel by Nicole Krauss that grapples with existential and other philosophical issues, and deep considerations of Jewish religious thought and mysticism. The two main characters have no apparent links, other than being Americans with strong Jewish connections who have flown to Israel where most of the action occurs. Their stories unfold in alternating narratives.

The third person narrative concerns very wealthy retired lawyer Jules Epstein, 68, who has disappeared, as far as his family and friends in the U.S. are concerned, after shedding much of his largesse.

The second narrative is told in the first person by an author-character Nicole – at 39 slightly younger than the author of Forest Dark, but otherwise it is ambiguous if the character is autobiographical.

Epstein and Nicole are each latched onto by enigmatic characters who provide vehicles for didactic pronouncements, and a modicum of meandering narrative drive.

Nicole, who has left behind a failing marriage, reflects: “In our own ways, we had each come to understand that we had lost faith in our marriage. And yet we didn’t know how to act on this understanding, as one does not know how to act on the understanding, for example, that the afterlife does not exist”.

She arrives in Tel Aviv and meets Eliezer Friedman, apparently an academic, who presses her to complete an unfinished Franz Kafka novel. “(F)or the Jews,” Friedman tells her, ‘[Kafka’s] The Metamorphosis has always been a story not about the change from one form to another but about the continuity of the soul through different material realities”. A thread running from beginning to end in Nicole’s story is what she describes as a feeling of being “in two places at once”.

In Epstein’s case the action driver is Rabbi Menachem Klausner, a large glossy-bearded founder of a program, ‘Gilgul’, that brings Americans to Safed to study Jewish mysticism. He insists that Epstein is a direct descendant of the biblical David.

At the rabbi’s headquarters Epstein becomes part of a captive audience. As he strives to follow the rabinnic declamations, Epstein repeats one phrase – ‘the will of infinity’- to himself, “weighing the phrase in his mind as one weighs a hammer to see if it is enough to drive the nail. But the words come apart on him and raised only dust”.

This is a delightfully perceptive sentence, but I feel compelled to add that it’s also a fair summary of the effect this whole book had on me.

John Mancy is an occasional writer of flash fiction, former barrister, foreign correspondent, founding editor of sundry legal periodicals, casual law lecturer and author of an online and loose-leaf legal encyclopaedia subtitle on Animals.

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