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This reading group guide forThe White Forestincludes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Adam McOmber. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Set in Victorian London, The White Forestis the story of Jane Silverlake—a young woman with an unusual ability to see the souls of objects. When Jane reveals her ability to her best friends, Madeline Lee and Nathan Ashe, Nathan’s fascination with her talent upsets the balance of the trio’s friendship. Soon, Nathan has disappeared while participating in the dark activities of a cult that may have something to gain from Jane’s ability. Jane and Maddy resolve to find Nathan, but doing so forces Jane to confront the mysterious sources of her ability, and brings the three friends to the brink of a new reality from which they may not return: the Empyrean.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. After Jane reveals her talent to her friends she tells Maddy: “When [Nathan] looks at you, Maddy, he sees a beautiful girl…when he looks at me, he sees my talent. We both have something to offer” (p. 89). How does Jane’s talent change the dynamic of the threesome? What does Nathan have to offer Jane and Maddy?
2. At the beginning of the novel, Jane says, “I wasn’t a witch meant for burning, nor was I precisely the doorway Nathan imagined…If anything, I was the landscape behind the door” (p. 9). What is the significance of this foreshadowing? How do the other characters see Jane? How does she come to see herself? How does your understanding of who, or what, Jane is shift throughout the novel?
3. How do the wildness, beauty, and strangeness of Hampstead Heath contribute to the plot and atmosphere of the novel? Why does Jane both love and fear the Heath? In what ways does it shape her as a character?
4. After Nathan’s disappearance, Jane and Maddy’s relationship is increasingly strained by the question of whom Nathan loved. Whom do you think he loved, if he loved at all? Explain your answer.
5. Discuss the ways that Jane uses her power to help, to protect, and to manipulate. What are some examples of each? As her understanding of her power grows, how does Jane change? How did your perception of her change—is Jane innocent or culpable?
6. Nathan is so fascinated with Jane’s talent that he uncovers the secret writings of Theodore de Baras while abroad during the Crimean War. What drives him to do so? How does the discovery change him?
7. What motivates Nathan? How does his curiosity about Jane set many of the novel’s events in motion? Do you blame him for wanting to experience the Empyrean?
8. Jane is sometimes described as “unnatural” and she uses flowers or nature to control her abilities. In what other ways does the theme of natural versus unnatural play out in The White Forest?
9. Discuss the recurring image of the Lady of Flowers that Jane first sees in her mother’s wardrobe. Who is the Lady of Flowers? When is the image a source of fear? When is it a source of reverence?
10. Ariston Day wants spiritual transcendence and a “cure for every ill of modern society” (p. 263). Do you think the world’s betterment is his true goal? In what ways do his actions contradict this claim?
11. Jane asks Inspector Vidocq, “Why is it that all men wish to explore me?” (p. 285). How would you answer her question? Jane’s servants and Madeline fear her talent, while the men around her want to use it. Why?
12. Maddy tells Jane that she and Nathan thought of Jane as “charity,” as a “lark” (p. 291). Is she being honest? Given what she says, do you think Maddy truly cares for Jane? Why does Jane remain loyal, despite Maddy’s admission?
13. After Jane sees Nathan and Maddy together in the woods, she prays for him to be taken. Do you think her prayers cause his disappearance? Is Nathan responsible, to some extent? Ultimately, what do you make of Jane “devouring” him (p. 339)?
14. In the white forest, Jane realizes that her friends have changed her and that “the flesh and blood part of [her] had grown strong. [She’d] learned to love the world” (p. 343). What does Jane’s humanity cause her to do? How might she have acted if her friends had not drawn her out of Stoke Morrow?
15. Jane, her mother, and Mother Damnable are all avatars or manifestations of the Lady of Flowers. In what ways are the three women similar or different? How does each handle her powers and her role?
16. When Jane visits the church in Spitalfields she is told: “The role of the gifted one has nothing to do with power or with kings. She’s meant to keep a balance between air and aether” (p. 300). How does this differ from what Jane and others believe her role to be? In the end, is the balance maintained or upset?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Flowers hold a great deal of significance and power in the novel. If you’re hosting the group discussion, sit outside (like the heath), decorate with fresh cut flowers, or give each member a tiny bouquet like the one Jane ties to her wrist. For instructions on how to make a corsage, visit www.save-on-crafts.com/cormakbas.html.
2. Read Adam McOmber’s short story collection, This New and Poisonous Air, for your next book club pick. Do you notice any similarities to The White Forest?
3. Jane’s unique ability allows her to see the souls of manmade objects. As a group, choose a nearby object. It can be anything—a favorite mug, a vase, a chair. Spend a few minutes writing a paragraph about the colors, feelings, and energy that you associate with that object. Share your profiles with the other members. Were you surprised by what others wrote? Who had the most imaginative profile?
A Conversation with Adam McOmber
Are there elements of The White Forest that are based in research or inspired by a certain event? Or is the story purely a product of your imagination?
I researched many aspects of life in mid-nineteenth century London. I wanted Jane’s surroundings to feel authentic, so when the reader arrives at the more fantastic moments in the narrative, those too will feel somehow true. Though no single historical event inspired the story, there are many pieces of actual history embedded here.
How did you dream up Jane’s talent? What is the connection between the souls of objects and this other reality, the Empyrean?
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how the idea for Jane’s talent came about. The best way to explain it would probably be to say that the talent was built, piece-by-piece, both from research and from my own imagination. I considered concepts like animism (the notion that non-human entities possess life or spirit) and psychometry (the nineteenth century idea that a psychic can perceive the history of a manmade object simply by touching it).
As for the connection between the objects and the Empyrean, there are many ways to think about this. If a body (either animate or inanimate) has a soul, it doesn’t seem much of a stretch to imagine that the soul might provide a kind of window onto the metaphysical world. I’m interested in the idea that the material can become a doorway to the immaterial.
The book contains some powerful imagery, such as Jane’s visions of the Red Goddess and the white forest. How did you write these scenes? Why is the recurring imagery important to the story and to your style?
Images arrive at odd moments and often seem to come out of nowhere. These sorts of fantasies tend to form suddenly in my mind when I’m thinking about something unrelated to writing. I try to keep myself receptive to such images, and I write them down when they occur to me. After I find the right image, I begin to explore it, pushing it as far as it will go. It’s my hope the reoccurrence of images that resonate will help the reader slip deeper inside the dream of the story.
Why did you choose the Victorian setting and Hampstead Heath? Did you spend time in London before or during the writing of the novel?
Yes, I spent time in London a few years ago and was certainly inspired by what I saw during that time. I chose Hampstead Heath as the primary setting for the novel because of its natural beauty and the sense of isolation it evokes. Jane feels comfortable on the Heath because she is surrounded by nature, and yet at the same time, she is left feeling ill at ease. She senses that she has been separated from something vital—something she must find in order to make herself whole again.
The names of the characters and places in the book are so distinctive. How did you come up with them?
For me, a character’s name should act as a kind of invocation. I worked for a long time to get the names right in The White Forest, speaking them aloud and listening to them. There were times when I started only with a sound, and I worked until I found a name that matched the sound. My hope is that the reader gets a feeling of the character from the name alone.
What do you hope a reader will take away from The White Forest? What kind of experience do you look for when you read?
My hope for readers of The White Forestis that they will feel drawn into the book by both the story and the characters. I want Jane and the others to come alive for a while in the reader’s imagination and to take him or her on an adventure. As a reader myself, I’m interested in books that have characters who feel like real people. I’m particularly interested when these realistic characters have strange and fantastic experiences that I myself could not have. The best sort of literature for me is the sort that creates ecstatic moments—moments when a reader feels that the everyday world has been torn away. I want to feel that a book has connected me to something larger than myself—something mythic.
When you are writing fiction, with what germ of an idea do you begin? A story element, a character, a setting?
This varies from story to story, but for The White Forest, the character of Jane definitely came first. I saw her clearly, walking across the overgrown Heath beneath a gray sky. I knew that she was lonely and dangerous. She didn’t belong on the Heath. In fact, she didn’t belong anywhere in our world. There was a kind of desperation in her. And I wanted to write about that.
Do you think of your fiction as literary gothic, supernatural, or something else? How do you, as a modern writer, approach these genres? How do you keep them feeling fresh and contemporary?
I am attempting to blend a wide variety of genres and literary tropes that I personally enjoy. At the same time, it’s important to me that my stories do not rely on generic cliché or formula. As I write, I am always asking myself if the scene or image feels fresh. If so, I know I’m going in the right direction.
If you could tap into the emotions of one specific object, what would it be? Why?
I’m not sure I can privilege any one object over another. I love the thought of being able to look through the objects—to look beyond the surface of the everyday world and see what’s behind the curtain. In a sense, I think using one’s imagination provides a similar feeling. Looking at a blank sheet of paper can have the same effect of looking into another world.
What do you like to read? If you were to suggest a book to a reader to read after finishing The White Forest, what would it be?
I love to read great imaginative fiction—works that reach beyond our everyday lives. I would encourage anyone who enjoyed The White Forestto read Isaac Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales. For me, these tales are near perfect. They are at once lushly Romantic and strange.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a new novel that, like The White Forest, makes use of an imagined reality. It’s too early to say much about the story itself, but I’m really enjoying my exploration of this new set of characters and the mystery of the world that they enter.
Adam McOmber teaches creative writing at Columbia College Chicago and is the associate editor of the literary magazine Hotel Amerika. Stories from his collection This New and Poisonous Air have been nominated for two 2012 Pushcart Prizes. Visit his website at AdamMcOmber.com.