Rating: 4 stars
I read a review of The Fountain in the Forest in The Guardian which makes reference to Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec, as well as David Peace, Jorge Luis Borges and Paul Auster. All of these men are innovative writers whose works I admire. The review also introduces The Fountain in the Forest as a pulp style detective novel. Police procedurals and books about private detectives are probably my favourite genre. If I had to pick one, I mean. If I had to. The review made it sound as though this book would be right up my alley.
After I finished reading the review, I immediately placed a reservation request with my local library.
There are lots of things to love about this book, all of which are covered in the author’s note at the end. There’s the conceit of naming the chapters after days in the French Revolutionary Calendar, to encapsulate the story subliminally in communal ways of living. There’s the inclusion of the English translation of the French word in the chapter’s narrative. There’s the additional punctuation of the narrative with words and phrases in bold that at first, not having the author’s note straight away, I took to be clues to the crime or perhaps visual triggers for the atmosphere of the scene. I pictured what each word meant as it leapt out at me from the page, in the way satirical programmes of my teens and twenties would flash up an image that interrupted and subverted the scene. These words are all answers to clues in The Guardian Quick Crossword for March and April 1985. There’s also the reframing of social history that echoes what David Peace does in his books. Significant events that altered the fabric of society are the backdrop to the crime investigation, and are viewed by the author through a different lens to the one used in the authorised histories of Thatcher’s Britain. To an extent, this also reminded me of what David Mitchell does in his books, particularly Black Swan Green.
Then there’s the story itself. It starts off an old school police procedural, with the occasional reference to the present day (artisan coffee shops, shared drives, digital photography, political refugees working in ‘service sector’ jobs) to remind you that we’re not in the 1980s just yet. The crime scene is simultaneously a little encountered one and a place that the main character, DS Rex King, is familiar with. White sets it up well, having us experience it both as new with the investigating team and as familiar through King’s perspective.
The 1980s pop up in passing reference throughout the first few chapters. The cleaner at the theatre, Gertrude Bisiki, is a political refugee who fled Malawi in 1983. DS King joined the police as a graduate trainee in 1989. Chalk letters on the wall at the crime scene reveal themselves to be a French Revolutionary Calendar date that equates to 4 March 1985. Then there’s a sudden plummet into 1984 and King’s presence as a seventeen year old at the Stonehenge Free Festival. It starts off as a reverie triggered by the homophobia of his colleague DS Eddie Webster and then becomes a full on reminiscence about King’s dodgy drug-using youth. Later, we learn that 1984 is the year something significant happens in Rex’s life.
The second part of the book jumps to France, to a commune called La Fontaine-en-Fôret, a place where the French Revolutionary Calendar is still followed. The date is Tridi 13 Ventôse CXCIII. The day after the Miners’ Strike ended in the UK. JJ has travelled from Exeter using a travel prize that he won in sixth-form. He intends to walk in the footsteps of the French Impressionists. He’s been befriended by a man called Pea-tag, who is from the Basque country between France and Spain. Links are quickly made between Rex King’s crime scene and JJ’s holiday adventure, but also between King’s visit to the Stonehenge Free Festival the previous year and JJ’s introduction to the neolithic region of France where La Fontaine-en-Fôret is located.
I enjoyed the second part very much. Mainly because the pop culture references are from my teenage years, and 1985 was the year I became politically aware. Although JJ is five years older than me, I found it easy to imagine myself in his shoes. I also liked it, though, because it’s set in the South of France, an area I have yet to visit but have been fascinated by since reading a book in French class about a boy who goes on an exchange visit to Aix-en-Provence and sees the white horses of the Camargue, and since watching Marcel Pagnol’s films and later reading the memoirs La Gloire de Mon Père and Le Chateau de Ma Mère. JJ receives a number of history lessons from the commune residents about the area which I found interesting, too. So much so that I scoured Google maps and the internet for evidence that the village existed. All of the surrounding towns do, but not La Fontaine-en-Fôret.
There is something about the idea of leaving capitalism behind and joining a socialist commune that has always appealed to me. I know that I hold a romanticised ideal in my head, that the reality is likely to be messy and peppered with conflict, because humans are the way we are. The depiction of the commune in this book plays into the romantic ideal, but it also asks questions of whether the memory of it is accurate or whether JJ has, in turn, romanticised it as he got older. The thing that appeals is the lack of responsibility, and the lack of anyone else being your boss. Also, the freedom to sit around and discuss the things that are important to you in that moment, instead of worrying about earning a living.
I liked the sense of a secret history about La Fontaine-en-Fôret, rooted in shame after the Second World War, that was covered over by alternate histories so that those who survived, by whatever means, didn’t have to acknowledge the reasons others didn’t survive. That a story about a baker unwilling to bake bread for the Nazis and choosing to end his own life was more palatable to the villagers who survived the occupation than the truth of his being Jewish, betrayed by someone else, and killed in a concentration camp. That after the war, people invented new traditions to replace the aftertaste of conflict, and those fake traditions gradually became real.
I could have read a whole book about this commune, but the third and final part shuttled me back to DS Rex King and his murder investigation. I’d started to make connections between what happened in France and what might have happened in England, so when the reveal came it was more satisfying confirmation than shock. Not everything is as it first appears. The shock, or rather distaste, came later as the crime was unpacked. The verging on criminal behaviour of Thatcher’s police force in quelling protest that had echoes across Europe and set a standard for police brutality in the decades that followed. The closing of ranks, the watching of backs, the arrogance of bigoted police officers who believe that they can literally get away with murder. It made my nose wrinkle.
A couple of things annoyed me, though. White has clearly researched his various subjects, including the acronyms, nicknames and colloquialisms used in the police force. Unfortunately, each time he introduces them for the first time, he clunkily reveals his researched knowledge, spelling out what each thing means in a way that, to me, felt awkward and as though he was showing off. I think the intention is to get across how coded the world we live in now is, how seldom we hear plain English, how people use obscured language to create power structures. I hate business-speak and marketing-speak. Whatever White was trying to do here, the annoyance it caused me obscured his point. Which is, in a way, apt.
The other thing was the fetishising of women’s breasts. A couple of the characters behave towards women they claim to be in love with as though they are a walking pair of breasts. White describes breasts falling or being pulled from bras, breasts being sucked and kneaded, women’s nipples hardening, but doesn’t bother describing how the women feel, other than that they are so turned on that they just want to fuck and fuck. None of it is offensive. It just made me roll my eyes.
Those things aside, I was gripped by the story and the way it is told. If you’re a reluctant reader of crime novels, detective stories, police procedurals or other books of that ilk, I think there’s enough of the literary fiction about The Fountain in the Forest to make it worth a punt.