Sea of Trees by Robert James Russell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Bill, a young American, and his beautiful Japanese girlfriend, Junko, travel deep into a dark forest littered with suicide notes and corpses as they search for any trace of Junko's missing sister. Along the way, the secrets of Junko's past unfurl and sink into the roots of the forest as Bill hobbles after her, a helpless observer. This harrowing tale is interlaced with short flashes into the days preceding the suicides of people from all walks of life, souls all destined to die alone in a sea of trees.
There are a few ways this subject matter could have been handled. It could have been a gothic horror, or slasher story. It could have been a brutal nihilistic tale about hopelessness. Instead, Mr. Russell has penned elegant little stories about individual sufferers and woven them into the larger tapestry comprising a forest of death, but without gratuitous shock or contempt. Depression is not a romantic thing, nor is it a pitiful thing, it is the beast of this almost fairy tale universe driving the lost into its jaws.
The prose is compassionate and achingly accurate to anyone who has suffered a serious bout of depression. The tales of the sufferers vary from those driven to sadness by their own mistakes, others by the coldness of their environment, and in others it's the monster living deep within them from birth. I found passages of it so affecting it was like staring into a cold, clouded mirror I've been running from my entire life.
"...And during her subconscious digging she unceremoniously realized it had always been there like a pit inside her--that she could remember ever not feeling this way. This realization was a comfort to her, of all things, knowing this was part of her, that, perhaps she had been broken since birth, and like that, a wave wobbling over her, the desire to end it all returned, but with less malice than before..."
At a slick, swift 105 pages, this story is no longer than it needs to be but it casts it spell, putting its cold fingers around your wrist and leading you into the forest where evermore macabre sights await. The character of Bill serves more as our avatar in the story, a man as innocent and wondering as the reader. Junko is by far the more dynamic character, a small beauty of stubborn strength and obsession, fearing neither ghost or the rolling darkness as she pushes deeper and deeper into the forest.
I applaud Mr. Russell for this gem of a tale.
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