Warning: this article contains spoilers.
Liam Dowling’s debut novel, The Forest of Deen, is a compelling first effort that attempts to tackle large social issues, but ultimately fails to grasp the complexities behind these concepts.
Dowling, ConEd ’18, has produced an engaging first novel critiquing societal oppression and prejudice.
The story follows a community of woodland creatures who occupy the Forest of Deen — presumably based on the non-fictional Forest of Deen in England. With a crumbling religious system and laws against inter-species mating, it doesn’t take long to realize that the trials faced in the forest are reflections of similar issues in contemporary society.
While this is an important and thoughtful parallel, Dowling, who’s also currently the Commissioner of Environmental Affairs in the AMS, oversimplifies these problems by using underdeveloped characters and a plot that lacks subtlety or a sense of direction.
The protagonist of the novel is Smithson, a young, idealistic fawn who despite being the youngest character, seems to be the only one smart enough to ask relevant questions. While the other animals blindly accept the existence of their Creator and the validity of their social structure — which divides the forest into Roamers, Gliders and
Treaders — Smithson conveniently questions these norms.
Throughout the course of the novel, Smithson undergoes little to no character development. He continually asks questions about the morality of his society and yet never develops the agency to begin answering these questions or attempting to change them. In the end, the fawn runs away from the cruelty of the forest and into an indeterminate future.
This cliché ending produces a lack of resolution to the issues it presents at the beginning of the novel, many of which one can’t simply be run away from. While having no resolution may be a critique on society, it ultimately made the book feel unanchored.
The conflict throughout the story also allowed it to address a wide variety of topics such as religious persecution and environmental destruction. I found it interesting to read about these problems through a fictional story, which has the potential to engage readers more than facts or studies could. But even though the novel is quick to break down various societal conventions, it still ends up reinforcing others.
Smithson’s parents, John and Jane, act to suppress their son’s growing curiosities. John is represented as a brave and unfeeling warrior and Jane as an emotional housewife, which limits them within typical gender stereotypes. While I found the relationship between the family of deer one of the most endearing things about the novel, the oversimplification of their characters made them hard to relate to on a significant level.
The Forest of Deen addresses many important issues in a way that’s easy to understand, however the simplification of these concepts seem to trivialize them more than anything else.
The novel does have its moments of sincerity and humour, which briefly overshadow its flaws. I think that these subtle moments, when Dowling isn’t trying to make a statement, provide touching representations of humanity that give the story its heart.
Despite some of the more unrealistic elements, the novel succeeds in creating a sense of hope for the future as we move away from the forest towards a new world.
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