The White Forest, Adam McOmber’s debut novel, is a supernatural mystery set in Victorian England. Jane Silverlake lives in isolation with her father in a crumbling mansion on Hampstead Heath. She is grateful for the friendship of Madeline Lee and Nathan Ashe, a handsome young Crimean war veteran.
Since her mother died when she was six, Jane has been able to hear and feel the souls of man-made objects. Nathan, with a mystical bent, is convinced that Jane’s gift offers a key to the Empyrean, a hidden heavenly realm. Nathan joins a cult led by the sinister Ariston Day and disappears after a secret ritual. When Jane touches any of Nathan’s possessions, she has visions of an eerie white forest, as well as a Lady of Flowers who is connected with her mother’s death. With Maddie at her side, Jane sets out to confront Day, rescue Nathan, and unravel the mystery of the Lady of Flowers which is close to the mystery of her own identity.
This is my kind of fictional premise, and it also parallels history: late 19th century Britain saw a huge resurgence of interest in western occult traditions. I’m a huge fan of audiobooks and that’s the edition I chose after The White Forest’s publication in September, 2012.
Unfortunately, in all respects, the story is smaller than life.
The romantic triad of Jane, Maddie, and Nathan never has a strong enough pulse to drive the story. Jane seeks to rescue Nathan out of friendship and guilt for leading him astray, not out of love. At moments Jane feels the desire to be desired but we sense that she and Maddie would be fine in the end if Nathan never returned. Jane’s lack of passion for Nathan paralleled my lack of passion for her and her friends; I liked them – most of the time – but I never loved them.
“World building” is a key element of any magical world, but McOmber doesn’t carry it far enough. Despite plenty of backstory, the White Forest, the Empyrean, and the Lady of Flowers are never coherently integrated. In addition, Jane’s magical power, the ability to feel and let others feel the nature and history of objects, never feels that significant. There’s a wealth of information in print and online about 19th and early 20th century mysticism in Britain, such as the papers of The Golden Dawn. Just a bit more energy devoted to research by the author might have produced a compelling metaphysic for his world.
The lack of energy I sense in the world of The White Forest and its characters contributed to a lack of energy on my part as a listener. I downloaded the audio version last September, and just finished it now, as one of those end-of-the-year housecleaning chores. Though I wanted to like this book, I was disappointed and cannot recommend it.