Sara Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest (2012)

Sometimes, you sense the match between you and a particular book immediately.

Granta Books, 2012 (via House of Anansi)

That’s what happened with me and Sara Maitland’s book.

I still remember the pang of realization in discovering that it had not yet been published: the long wait for The Perfect Book.

It was worth the wait.

Gossip from the Forest is structured with twelve parts, each of which begins with a black-and-white photograph of a certain forest, followed by an exploration of that forest, with the segment concluding with a retelling of a fairy tale.

But, first, the epigraph.

It includes various definitions of ‘gossip’, the substance of this work.

When we think of ‘gossip’ we think of “idle talk”, “trifling or groundless rumour”.

Sara Maitland observes that trivializing women’s concerns distorts language, for the third meaning has become pervasive in our culture.

She, however,  intends a heavier weight on the traditional definitions: “one who has contracted a spiritual relationship with another by acting as a sponsor at a baptism” or a “familiar acquaintance or friend”.

(This immediately pulled me that much closer to the idea of this being The Perfect Book.)

Gossip from the Forest is rooted in several key ideas, in reality and in story.

“At our deep Teutonic roots we are forest people, and our stories and social networks are forest born.”

(I could not choose a favourite forest from these pages; I do not have personal experience of any of them and, yet, many times the author’s descriptions made them seem familiar.)

The Grimm brothers were systematically seeking a Teutonic folk culture, and there were forests everywhere in that landscape.

In fact, “over half the stories (116 out of 210) in the 1857 edition explicitly mention forests as the location of some part of the story, and at least another 26 have very clear forest themes or images.”

That doesn’t mean it’s simple; Sara Maitland suggests that we all walk in the forest with “a double map”.

What does this mean? One map, “a rich, carefully researched but still incomplete map of the history (economic, social and natural) of woodland that spans not just centuries but millennia; and a second map which relocates the forest in our imaginations and was drawn up when we were children from fairy stories and other tales.”

The work itself exhibits musings upon both maps. There are simple and evocative descriptions, like this one of “The Purgatory Wood”:

“On Christmas Eve it was very cold; the snow, which had mainly fallen over a week before, was – untouched by any thaw – still white and fluffy wherever it had not been trodden on; the air was sparkling and crisp and there was no wind.”

Alongside this, there is a social commentary (which added to my personal appreciation of this work).

Sara Maitland

Sara Maitland

“For me, and I expect for most women, there is an extra wedge to this fear – most of the people you encounter in wild places are men; the sorts of things that create this sort of fear are strongly connected, for me, with masculinity. Yes, of course there are women who lurk about in the high hills and deep in the woods – indeed, I am one of them – but guns, hard drinking and noisy vehicles have the deep fear of rape as well as robbery attached to them.”

But perhaps the most delightful parts of the work are those rooted in the second map, the retellings (I especially liked the “Rumpelstiltskin” retelling which followed “The New Forest”).

For this reader, Gossip from the Forest still fits my idea of A Perfect Book.

Project Notes: 
Day 38 of 45:
Some of the reading in this project was very challenging (like Graeme Gibson’s Five Legs) but Sara Maitland’s book was a true pleasure. Definitely a keeper.

Have you added a keeper to your shelves recently?



  1. Vasilly January 6, 2013 at 8:34 pm - Reply

    I’m patiently waiting for my library to get a copy of this. I can’t wait to read it especially since I’m reading tons of fairy tales this month.

    M., where are all of the “share” buttons? How can I share your awesome posts with the world without them. 😉

    • Buried In Print March 6, 2013 at 2:22 pm - Reply

      Vasilly – I think you will want to have a copy of this one. But, by now, you have probably snagged your library copy anyhow; I look forward to your thoughts! (And I don’t know what was wrong with the sharing buttons…were they hiding behind the trees, maybe? *grin)

  2. […] Further Reading: An interview with the author in The Telegraph, Buried in Print […]

  3. Alex in Leeds January 1, 2013 at 4:47 pm - Reply

    Yes, yes, yes! My original draft of my review of Gossip from the Forest was essentially ‘READ THIS! READ THIS! IT’S AMAZING!’ and I really needed to leave it a day or two to write about it properly. 😉

    • Buried In Print March 6, 2013 at 2:23 pm - Reply

      It strikes hard and fast, doesn’t it, Alex? I’m so glad to have company in gushing!

  4. Carl V. January 1, 2013 at 2:26 pm - Reply

    That sounds like a good one! Love the cover and I’m always into things that have to do with the forest, with trees, etc. They are magical places. This looks like one that would be fun to take out on hikes and read in the woods.

    • Buried In Print March 6, 2013 at 2:24 pm - Reply

      I would have loved it on the strength of the cover art alone, I think, but what’s between the covers only adds to the appeal. I think you’d appreciate her view of mystery and wonder and, you’re right, reading it in the woods would be a true homage.

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