Collection Review: In the Forest of Forgetting by Theodora Goss

I hope everyone’s having a great holiday season, spending time with family and friends, finding time to sneak off and read when necessary for mental health, etc. And here’s hoping everyone’s keeping well, staying clear of cold weather colds, which I’ll admit has always been the hardest part of winter for me.

Got some exciting news yesterday, a holiday surprise of sorts. As many of you know, I’m working on my MFA in creative writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program, a low-residency program which requires me to attend two ten-day workshops a year up in Maine. Yesterday, I got an e-mail from our workshop leader informing us that this January, one of my favorite writers, Theodora Goss, will be co-leading our workshop. This will be my last workshop at Stonecoast, and I couldn’t imagine a better way to end it. So, in honor of good news, I’ve reviewed Theodora Goss’ short story collection, In the Forest of Forgetting.

Theodora Goss is a master of place. In all sixteen short stories in her collection In the Forest of Forgetting, the setting, though often a fantastical place, is as vivid as the characters, many of whom are greatly affected by the places they inhabit. In the introduction by Terri Windling, which gives an interesting biography of Goss and explores her historical context for the way she writes, Windling says, “Goss is a travel guide across borders both real and imaginary: borders of time, of gender, of genre, of landscape, of culture, and of expectation.”

I couldn’t put it better myself. Goss does indeed eschew borders. Her fiction crosses genre lines and is therefore difficult to categorize. While the fantastical is always an element in her stories, it is often metaphor, or a subtle expression of her character’s rich inner lives that manifests itself in reality. And while Goss’ work is certainly fiction, her prose could be called a form of poetry. The images she creates are certainly vivid enough.

The most poetic piece in the collection is “The Rose in Twelve Petals,” which revisits the story of Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of each character involved: the witch who curses Sleeping Beauty, the magician who alters the curse from death to sleep, the king and father, even the spinning wheel, the tower and the rose. Goss’ structure is flawless; there are twelve numbered sections, and each section is a point-of-view. The unifying theme of each section, besides the Sleeping Beauty story itself, is the presence of the rose.

Goss also crosses borders of traditional story structure. Often her stories are split into pieces that, by the end, form a whole. Sometimes numbered, sometimes not, each section reads like a transition in the story and explores a refreshing view of the short story itself; so often one assumes that short stories, unlike novels, do not contain parts. Perhaps this is because the parts of a novel – its chapters – are obvious. Goss makes it obvious that short fiction as well is capable of layers.

The collection as a whole contains many linking parts. Many of the stories bleed into one another. The character of Miss Gray, a dark Mary Poppins-like woman, shows up in three stories, always when the other characters, particularly children, need her. She grants wishes, though sometimes in unfavorable ways; her magic comes with a price. The story “Lessons with Miss Gray” revisits the lives of two of the characters from the World Fantasy Award-nominated story “The Wings of Mister Wilhelm” and fills in the blanks regarding the back story of the characters.

In several other stories, character names are repeated. Though the fact that they are the same character in both stories is never clarified, the repetition gives the impression that these stories must be related in some way. Discovering the links between stories is rewarding. The world of In the Forest of Forgetting feels as rich as the worlds of the stories inside. And as mysterious.

Which brings me to the mystery of Goss’ fiction. What I like most about her writing, and what makes her such an exciting writer to read, is that she never explains everything. Though she certainly gives the reader enough information to form their own opinion of what exactly has occurred in many of these stories, she never answers every question. There is no attempt on her part to tie up all her loose ends, a technique that I think engages the reader even more in the story and makes things much more interesting.

Other highlights of the collection include “Pip and the Faeries,” “The Rapid Advance of Sorrow,” and “Letters from Budapest.”

Contains the following stories, three of which are available online:

“The Rapid Advance of Sorrow”
“Sleeping with Bears”
“Pip and the Fairies”
“The Rose in Twelve Petals”
“Professor Berkowitz Stands on the Threshold”
“Lily, With Clouds”
“Miss Emily Gray”
“In the Forest of Forgetting”
“Letters from Budapest”
“The Wings of Meister Wilhelm”
“Conrad”
“A Statement in the Case”
“Death Comes for Ervina”
“The Belt”
“Phalaenopsis”
“Lessons with Miss Gray”

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