Any middle-school English teacher can tell you that there are four basic forms of conflict in literature: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. society, and man vs. self. In Katie Kitamura’s new novel Gone to the Forest, a wrenching study of a man, a family, and a country caught in the process of being torn apart, Tom confronts all four. On a remote farmstead in an unnamed, post-colonial nation, Tom lives under the weight of his imperious father, the two men in uneasy harmony until the intrusion of a young woman explodes their tenuous balance.
Unobtrusive and complacent, Tom faces man, nature, society, and self powerlessly, unable to summon the inner bestial nature that seems to course through the rest of the inhabitants of the novel. As a volcano across the border rains ash upon the land and an uprising inches closer, Tom can do no more than to watch his fate approach, lacking both the drive and the strength to protest. Kitamura, a previous frequent contributor to The Last Magazine, has made somewhat of a specialty of the conflicts between men. Her first novel, The Longshot, focused on a martial arts competitor and his coach preparing for a bout, and the battle between Tom and his father, while less physical, is no less violent.
On the novel’s cover, Salman Rushdie notes the similarities in style to Coetzee and Gordimer—both, notably, South Africans—and it is easy to see their influence in Kitamura’s sere phrases and unadorned sentences. There is also the overpowering weight of the colonial legacy, as the “natives” wrest, Zimbabwe-style, the land back from the white farmers. The writing is sharp and clear, smooth with hidden depths that imbue quiet actions with potency. Kitamura’s characters stumble blindly through a changing world, faced with threats from all sides. They helplessly watch the volcano erupt, its raging fury matched by the one that burns within their souls.
Katie Kitamura’s Gone to the Forest is out now from Free Press.