Out of the Woods, the first book by Luke Turner, begins with the breakdown of a five year relationship with his girlfriend, caused by (among other things) the difficulty of self-definition as a bisexual man in a heterosexual relationship. In an attempt to find solace, Turner turns to the Epping Forest, a space deeply rooted in his family and childhood, and begins writing about its history — both in its remarkable radicalism, and as a place of sexual adventure.
The book is a deft and eloquent memoir that manages to explore religion and sexuality, depression and guilt, and family and friendship, while also being a book about music and counter-culture, a book about cities, about nature, and about our relationship with the forest and other peripheral spaces in what is in an overwhelmingly metropolitan era. It is no ordinary memoir. Ideas, desires, aspirations and doubts pulsate through the narrative, held together by grounding points such as 18th century philosopher Giambattista Vico, 1970s industrial group Throbbing Gristle, and the role of the Christian faith.
We follow not just Turner’s personal history, but the history of the forest itself. On regular trips Turner becomes friends with a local homeless man who has abandoned society to live in the woods. Turner visits the man regularly, bringing him coffee, and learning more of the history of the forest through his story. We immediately make the connection between the forest as a peripheral space, and the marginalisation that encapsulates the queer experience.
Turner writes with great skill and openness about sexual discovery, of his journey to overcome feelings of shame, and of how to grow with the help of others.
What is worth noting however is not just how he writes about such deeply personal things in an incredibly level-headed and approachable way, but also in how he draws on a range of seemingly disparate influences and reference points to contextualise the exploration of the peripheral space. Touchstones such as the films of Derek Jarman, the life of occultist artist Osman Spare, the music of groups such as Crass, Suede and Coil, and the radical history of the Methodist church are all weaved seamlessly into the narrative. all brought in to augment the narrative. In the case of music for instance, Turner goes from writing about the Epping Forest in a sense that is linked to childhood and familial belonging, to then writing about a similar search for belonging when escaping the suburban town of St Albans as a teenager to go to gigs and later nightclubs in London.
The search for belonging is explored through the spaces between which Turner finds himself caught — rejecting certain views held by the Methodist Church that he grew up in (his father is a priest) while being deeply appreciative of the community of the church, and the love and kindness that he feels from his parents. The search of belong is perhaps above all however, explored in relation to the acceptance of the self.
While the exploration of the ambiguous role of the forest is on one level the focus of the text, running parallel is a very interesting dissection of bisexuality, and how that bisexuality is perceived by many. Turner speaks of struggling to define himself between sexual binaries, to find acceptance in relationships, but also to accept himself. “Away from the cocoon of home,” Turner writes, “I still struggled to find a clear path.”
In discussing Giambattista Vico’s 1725 text The New Science, which theorises the notion of cyclical societies, Turner writes about how Vico noted that the etymology of human is bound with burial, that humanus is man, and humus is the ground. While the simple image of the forest as a benevolent place of relaxation is rejected in Out of the Woods in favour of something far more dark and mysterious, in noting referencing Vico we are made to consider the timelessness of the forest, and what keeps us coming back to it.
Similarly, Turner writes about the twin experience of the forest as one of both sexual discovery and as a place of wholesome recreation with friends and family. Turner looks into his family history in a church close to the forest, where he reads about his relative Mary Ann Turner walking miles to find a church that would baptise her baby as an unmarried woman. Turner relates the dichotomy of desire and shame to his own experience, and the forest as peripheral space is once again seen in relation to sexuality and radical artistic groups when talking about his own youth.
I possesed a power in my sexuality. The radicalism of Derek Jarman and Throbbing Gristle had taught me that. It’s not to say that I never enjoyed any of this. The pleasure was often visceral and I relished being objectified. The power dynamics I was exploiting gave me a surety in my masculinity that I’d never known before.
The book ends with Turner re-connecting with his roots by joining the Epping Forest Conservation Volunteers, where Turner speaks of coming to terms with the past and the present:
The reconciliation between my past and present selves stayed with me a little longer each time I made the trip. I was banishing my awkwardness, reclaiming my body and enjoying it not for how it looks or what might be done to it by others, but for how it works.
In this Turner joins a growing tradition of young writers re-interpreting the rural fringes of the city, as seen in the work of literary collective Caught By The River (where parts of Out of the Woods were originally serialised), as well as in the work of writers such as Joe Dunthorne and Will Burns.
In Out of the Woods the role of the forest is explored through history as a place of radicalism, of sexual deviancy, of labour, of religion, of recreation, of family, and finally, of penance. It is a book that not only explores all these things eloquently, but says something valuable about notions of masculinity, desire, sexual binaries, and non-heteronormative culture. A nuanced, esoteric, truly original and excellent addition to the burgeoning contemporary canon of urban pastoral writing.
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