||Apr. 1, 2014
The Illuminated Forest
The Illuminated Forest
12-year-old Mateo returns to his grandparents’ island to deal with a family tragedy. From the moment he arrives, a series of terrifying events turn his world upside down. A stray cat with a mohawk, a ruthless town bully, and a lost ghost mysteriously come together and change his life forever.
Mateo, a boy of 12, returns to the island of his grandparents to say goodbye to Minerva, a beloved family
member. Unhappy to be back in a place so full of memories, he struggles to make sense of the abrupt and
irreparable loss. When the mysterious appearance of a stray cat complicates matters, a series of terrifying incidents turn his life upside down. At the end of his very personal journey, he wonders if Minerva had something to do with the valuable lessons he learns about growing up and discovering that love materializes in different forms and in unexpected places.
The Illuminated Forest is an imaginative study in parallels: the fine lines that separate the real and the fantastic, the tangible and the mystical, the plausible and the magical. The novel’s heart is contained within the atmospheric, lush descriptions of the geography of an island that breathes and feels along with the characters. The Illuminated Forest is at times a very human portrait populated by flawed characters trying to find balance and renewal, at other times it is a magical escape into another realm when faith has failed them. The Illuminated Forest is a heartfelt story told through magical realism, a literary work that seeks to delve deeply into its characters’ humanity without sentimentality or trite happy endings.
There are tales that rise like the early sun, breathe, and take on a life of their own. There are ones that flow quietly and effortlessly until time forsakes them, but there are others that fight until they find their way to the edge of reality, as if coming straight out of a dream.
With every sip of water from the stream, the stray cat swallowed the moon and a handful of stars. Weary with exhaustion and not knowing how it ended up there, it lay alone, surrounded by darkness and the agitated sounds of other animals. Luckily, it had found safety in a secluded spot deep in the forest beneath the branches of an orange tree. The stray finally settled in for the night behind a soft, tall fortress of grass that ensured temporary privacy. It now felt protected by a canopy of shrubs entangled with vines and wild flowers. But still the cat could not find warmth, even on the improvised bed of dry leaves and brush. As the creature lay quietly, tired from wandering, it tried to ignore the hunger gnawing at its guts. Soon, the night’s symphony of frogs, crickets, and sleepless birds soothed him to sleep.
A sudden far away rumble shook the dew off the jasmine and interrupted the cat’s fitful sleep. As it lifted its sleepy eyes to the sky, it discovered the burning tail of a beautiful falling star whose brilliance transformed the tranquility of an otherwise ordinary night. The stray watched as a thin flash of lighting cracked the sky open to a dazzling rush of shooting stars. Among them, the brightest of them all fell from space at an overwhelming speed, making its fiery way past other stars and planets, following the invisible curvature of space as it began to penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere…
Clarion ForeWord Five-Star Review
This tender tale of animal friendship conveys the vulnerability of abandoned cats and young teens alike.
Grief stricken and lonely, a young boy adapts to difficult changes thrust upon him and interacts with an abused and abandoned stray cat facing similar pain. In this magical tale, a forest breathes with effervescence, guiding and educating in a mystical realm haunted by the presence of a special maternal entity.
Tender, yet delivered with a punch in all the right places, this perceptive and incredibly empathetic story reveals the depths of despair as the brutal blows of life threaten to snuff out the will to live in Mateo and his feline observer: “It was just a cat, and God knows I’ve seen a lot of them in my life. Still there was something about it that stopped me in my tracks; it was the saddest cat I’ve ever seen. Suddenly I could see myself reflected in its eyes, and there I saw someone scared, lost, and at the end of his rope: a true reflection of myself at that moment.”
For those who wonder what a cat feels when faced with the loss of a loving home that once provided shelter and nurture, this enlightening look at a semi-feral cat personified will bring even the cold-hearted to tears. Portrayed as a rational creature with emotional needs, this animal steals the limelight in heartrending scenes, a commentary on the human tendency toward apathy and, sometimes, cruelty: “Disoriented by the excruciating blow, the stray found itself flying across the yard. Pain burned the side of its ribs. It landed with a thud on the side of its face, still not realizing what had happened. Humiliated and hurt, the cat spat out a mouthful of dirt and snorted out the dust that was lodged inside its nostrils.”
The simplicity of the cat’s thoughts emphasizes the severity of mankind’s abrasive and unpredictable actions with phrases such as “biganimal gone,” “biganimal good,” “biganimal … no angry,” or “stinkanimal.” Perhaps the most poignant is “animalfriend,” a natural state of being for a sensitive human. Filled with beautiful illustrations to enhance the most striking scenes, this childlike fairytale will also appeal to adults seeking sophisticated symbolism and well-honed language typical of fine literature.
A native of Puerto Rico, Edwin Fontánez is a prolific author of children’s books, a producer, and an artist. In 1994, he founded Exit Studio, his own company, to showcase his work. He holds a BFA from the Escuela de Artes Plásticas in San Juan and a second degree in communication design from the Pratt Institute in New York.
The Illuminated Forest exhibits characteristics often found in award-winning juvenile and young adult fiction, making this book an excellent choice for public libraries and classroom use. Animal rights organizations may find this title an entertaining method of instruction for people living in environments overburdened with domesticated pets that have turned unapproachable and wild outdoors.
Julia Ann Charpentier
November 27, 2013
In Fontánez’s (On this Beautiful Island, 2004, etc.) illustrated novel, Mateo, a troubled young boy reared in Puerto Rico, returns briefly, but eventfully, to his grandparents’ small island community.
At 12, Mateo is devastated by the death of his young mother, Minerva. The family, divided between the city and the country town of Palo Verde, has attempted to maintain the fiction that Mateo’s mother is actually his widowed aunt Maria. His grandfather forced Minerva to leave their home when, at 14, she became pregnant with Mateo. It’s unclear when Mateo discovered who his biological mother was since he refers to both women by their first names and mourns the untimely death of Minerva with an intensity that nearly destroys his other relationships. Many of the emotions the humans feel appear to be transferred to other creatures: cats, ghosts and even the plant life in the island’s thick forests. Soon after Minerva’s death, Mateo travels to Palo Verde to reconnect with his grandparents and gain some perspective on his loss. Feeling betrayed by his family, he responds to everyone with fury and attempts to shield himself from further pain with pledges to never love again. He crosses paths with a stray cat, whose tragic story is intended to evoke as much sympathy as Mateo’s. The cat’s traumatic odyssey weaves together the same characters and objects most significant to Mateo—Minerva; his best friend, Sergio; the forest creatures; an orange tree; an abusive psychotic and his son; and a magic crystal. But the story of the young boy’s loss is compelling enough without all the touches of magical realism, the constant jumps from past to present, and questionably profound truths: “a tree never forgets an act of kindness,” or “that indomitable law of Nature, bad things come in threes.” The black-and-white drawings, which appear every few pages, are occasionally endearing and impressive but do little to advance or clarify the plot.
If pared down to its essential storyline, this heartfelt tale of a young boy’s pain and reluctance to make connections could form an instructive, charming story for younger readers.
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