Laura Elizabeth Woollett, 24, began writing her poetically nuanced and psychologically sophisticated novel, The Wood of Suicides (The Permanent Press) when she was 18, and finished it before her 22nd birthday.
It’s a tribute to the conception and execution of this unusual and moving coming-of-age tale to note that the English Romantic poets inform the narrative—it features a handsome Byronic anti-hero who seduces his 17-year old pupil, a senior in an upscale girls’ boarding school in California, an invited seduction that begins when the narrator hears and sees him read Wordsworth. The precocious, virginal Laurel Marks, whose intellectual and aesthetic yearnings outpace her capacity to reconcile her ambivalent emotions, is a remarkably authentic creation, but a publisher’s note makes clear that Laurel is no way like her author. The author, a Melbourne native, says that her first impulse was “to write a Lolita story from the girl’s perspective,” but when she began to develop the concept, it was “mythology, [English] Romanticism, Decadence and Pre-Raphaelite art” that determined the character of her “romantic heroine,” a girl who was “fragile and detached from the world, yet intense, passionate,” someone “at odds with her own time and physicality.”
The only child of an aloof academic and a bohemian artist, Laurel knows she’s beautiful, headstrong, brainy and vulnerable. She identifies with the subjects of the German psychologist [Mary Dinsmore Salter] Ainsworth, who studied “anxious-avoidant attachments.” Like those subjects, Laurel sees herself as having “Defensive posture. Limited emotional expression. A preference for solitary play,” someone who “would rather be independent than intimate with another person.” She recognizes that she loved/hated her handsome, intellectual father, a remote “god,” who has recently died. He had trigeminal neuralgia, a cranial nerve disorder also known as suicide disease because of the extraordinary pain it causes.
The story begins when Laurel, now in college, is looking back on her last year in high school. She got good grades but knows she could have done better. “Quiet and disliked by everybody,” she yet managed to fit in “if only because I was too indolent to do otherwise.” She also knows she has a darkness within: “As with all things green, my charm wasn’t in my freshness itself, but the certainty that it couldn’t last.” By the time her well-intentioned mother, whom she keeps at bay, enrolls her in the boarding school, Laurel’s solitariness and sense of superiority have primed her for the longed-for advances of Hugh Steadman, a married man with children, who exudes “the refined lust of an educated, dissatisfied man in his early 40s.” Laurel is attracted to Steadman’s looks and character—he’s “cynical, self-deprecating, affected, indiscriminate, patronizing…fickle, vain, virile, brooding, pedantic, philandering,” Byronic. What she doesn’t see at first, but continues to yield to, is the compulsive, fanatical nature of her adoration and the force of his sexual drive, both of which drive her to muse on the resemblance of her relationship to slavery and death.
Woollett impressively captures the excruciating joy and pain of young love, its nymph-like virtue but also sensual power, as body and soul move on their fateful journey from innocence to experience (hello, William Blake). Laurel begins as Daphne to Steadman’s Apollo, but then, as in the myth, she would beg the gods for release, to turn her into a tree in the wood. The Wood of Suicides (the phrase is from Dante’s Inferno) is an absorbing and richly sexual exploration of the angst that may overtake bright young women as they move out of the nest, not realizing that the next nest they come across might be filled with hornets (these figure in the story). Not without humor and full of references that show the author’s wide and sensitive reading, The Wood of Suicides will surprise as well as engage.