Luke Turner’s Out of the Woods, published at the end of the month, is our Book of the Month for January. Nina Lyon reviews:
On a warm September afternoon nearly twenty years ago, a friend and I walked up to Hampstead Heath from the houseshare we’d just moved into on Finchley Road with the vague notion that we’d hit some trees eventually if we just headed eastwards. We were right: we hit some trees where the houses of the village petered out and walked on into a clearing, mesmerised at the quiet of a place a few miles from central London. Here, you might be anywhere: the meadow was on a gentle southward incline fringed by trees, and, while archetypally English, did not betray the background thrum of the city surrounding it.
We stopped and rolled a spliff. A man walked by with a dog; he was nicely dressed and rather handsome. Another man crossed the meadow, with a friend not far behind. How convivial, we agreed, that people should meet in quiet unchatty ease like this. A further passing man gave us an odd look. It took an embarrassingly long time to realise that two straight-presenting girls chilling in the West Heath’s notorious cruising patch was an unorthodox state of affairs.
Luke Turner’s intriguing memoir takes a long and less idyllic look at surreptitious sex with men and the legacy of shame that helped create it. It is interspersed with tales from his lifelong relationship with Epping Forest, which, true to the nature memoir canon, provides a sanctuary and a place for open exploration of some of the darker and more covert influences on his state of mind.
The story begins when Turner moves out of his home at the edge of the forest after a former girlfriend ends their relationship, unable to cope with Turner’s drive for emotional cover when facing, or trying not to face, reminders of his bisexuality. Tugged towards impulsive sex with strangers at the cost of maintaining an emotional and sexual connection with the women he loves, Turner goes out into the woods to look inwards at how he got to be that way.
‘It didn’t help,’ he writes, ‘that I had grown up with a binary mindset, believing in heaven and hell, good and evil, saint and sinner, straight and gay, city and countryside.’ Pushed by casual homophobia and a religious background that, despite loving and compassionate parents, fuels his fear of becoming terminally fallen, Turner tries to push away a shadow side that only grows stronger and more tenebrous and keeps coming back for him.
My friend and I returned from our adventure on the Heath amused by the novelty of cottaging, and gave it little more thought. Turner’s insights made me review it: what if casual sex isn’t always as simple as the pursuit of pleasure, and its hiddenness indicates something darker and more troubling for the people going after it?
It’s hard not to feel a little voyeuristic. Turner’s honesty in describing formative sexual experiences is relentless and consistent, whether appraising teenage kicks or grim and ultimately traumatic acts of abuse by older men, and his more recent sexual history, with its perhaps more common rabbit-holes of Grindr and Tinder and subsequent encounters, is offered up for examination too. It makes a compelling account of the insidious power of shame in shaping a developing sexuality into something primed for secrecy and danger, and how that in turn dismantles otherwise good relationships.
Epping Forest might be a refuge for a number of colourful characters transgressing the norms of the greyer streets outside, but it also offers an oblique route out of the malaise that increasingly threatens to unravel Turner’s sanity. And, while the forest has its outlaws and its cruising spots, it provides an outlet for physical exertions that no small-town conservative or religious hardliner could take issue with. Aside from the meditative turns of his walks in and around the woods, it is in the wholesome activity of pollarding trees as a conservator at the end of the book that Turner alights on a form of masculinity he is entirely at home in.
I sometimes wonder if it’s a genre risk of nature memoirs that the disparate strands of enquiry can distract as well as enlighten: Out of the Woods covers a lot of ground, and I left the book wanting more on the thorny task of navigating masculinity and the unspoken parts of male sexuality, because it does it so outstandingly well. Turner writes plainly and thoughtfully about a part of himself that would terrify most of us to share in the public domain, and that directness enables him to cast light onto a part of human experience buried in the undergrowth for too long.
Out of the Woods is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson on 24 January. Pre-order a copy here.