THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS AFTER THE JUMP
This is the second best book I’ve ever read. (The first best is Tana French’s follow-up novel, the Likeness–
I’ll get around putting my love for that beautiful novel into words at some point I review that here).
The fact that this book has anything fewer than five stars on Goodreads and Amazon is one of the main reasons I tend to disregard reviews from people whose tastes I don’t know when deciding what to read next. This book is perfect: the characters, the beautiful sentences, the plot, the themes. Perfect, I tell you.
The premise is chilling and engrossing: In 1984, three children disappear into the woods outside a suburb of Dublin. Hours later, only one little boy is found, with blood on his shoes and slashes on his back and no memory of the previous hours. The other two children are never found. Twenty years later, Rob Ryan, the found boy, is a detective, investigating the murder of another child in those same woods. And though the mysteries are well-spun yarns, it’s the characters that get to me in this novel, especially how beautifully drawn Rob and his partner Cassie are. That, and the beautiful sentences.
Reasons to read this book:
1. The aforementioned beautiful sentences:
Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palette, watercolor nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue.
2. The voice of your narrator, Rob Ryan:
The truth is the most desirable woman in the world and we are the most jealous lovers, reflexively denying anyone else the slightest glimpse of her. We betray her routinely, spending hours and days stupor-deep in lies, and then turn back to her holding out the lover’s ultimate Mobius strip: But I only did it because I love you so much.
3. The relationship between Rob and his partner, Cassie:
The girls I dream of are the gentle ones, wistful by high windows or singing sweet old songs at a piano, long hair drifting, tender as apple blossom. But a girl who goes into battle beside you and keeps your back is a different thing, a thing to make you shiver. Think of the first time you slept with someone, or the first time you fell in love: that blinding explosion that left you crackling to the fingertips with electricity, initiated and transformed. I tell you that was nothing, nothing at all, beside the power of putting your lives, simply and daily, into each other’s hands.
4. Its ability to maintain its sense of humor through its devastating, sometimes gruesome story:
I recently found a diary entry from college in which I described my classmates as “a herd of mouth-breathing fucktard yokels who wade around in a miasma of cliché so thick you can practically smell the bacon and cabbage and cow shit and alter candles.” Even assuming I was having a bad day, I think this shows a certain lack of respect for cultural differences.
5. The sheer truth of its sentences:
We think about mortality so little these days, except to flail hysterically at it with trendy forms of exercise and high-fiber cereals and nicotine patches. I thought of the stern Victorian determination to keep death in mind, the uncompromising tombstones: Remember, pilgrim, as you pass by, As you are now so once was I; As I am now so will you be…. Now death is uncool, old-fashioned. To my mind the defining characteristic of our era is spin, everything tailored to vanishing point by market research, brands and bands manufactured to precise specifications; we are so used to things transmuting into whatever we would like them to be that it comes as a profound outrage to encounter death, stubbornly unspinnable, only and immutably itself.
6. The incredible themes, and I think this is what a lot of people who posted negative reviews missed. They’re somewhat subtle, but so finely spun once you find them. I can’t get into them without getting spoilery, so SPOILERS after the jump.
SPOILERY COMMENTS BELOW
A lot of people complain that the more interesting mystery–what happened to Peter and Jamie–wasn’t solved. However, after thinking long and hard about this book, I think I’ve figured out what the author was getting at. If you’ve read it and are still confused, read on for my take.
“In the Woods” is telling as a title, as this book is above all else about the loss of innocence that happens when moving from one world to the next, and what happens to those who get left behind, or stuck in between–people like Rob.
There are the physical woods, of course. Then there are the metaphorical woods. You could consider that no man’s land between childhood and adulthood to be such a place. Age twelve is the beginning of that strange in-between time. Adam, Jamie and Peter spend all summer frolicking in the woods as children, and the moment their childhood and innocence starts to slip away from them–witnessing the rape, the decision to run away, that kiss Adam plants on Jaime’s cheek–that’s when they stop being children, and cross over into something murkier. Jamie and Peter run straight into that woods never to be seen again–presumably they arrive on the other side, whatever that other side is. Adam never makes it there.
Jonathan Devlin talks about how he and his friends were trying to retain something that was slipping away from them as they grew up, as motivation for raping Sandra. (The awfulness of that justification should be clear, so I’m not getting into it here.) Rob mentions how if Katy had been a little older, she wouldn’t have bought the story about magic helping her with her dancing, and would never have set out for that shed. If Damien had been a little older or a little (okay, a lot) less naive, he would have seen Rosalind for what she was and never been drawn into the murder in the first place. And on the other side of the coin, though it’s Rosalind’s physical age that saves her, she has the calculating mind of a (seriously fucked-up) adult; that’s why she escapes unscathed, while Katy is dead and Damien’s spending however long behind bars. Every character is affected by their proximity to “the woods.”
And then there’s Rob and Cassie. Oh God. I wanted to punch Rob in the face for ruining what may be the best literary relationship I’ve ever read. I was intensely jealous of them the entire book–right up until everything fell apart.
They had the kind of relationship few friends of the opposite sex have in their thirties. Because as you get older, men and women just don’t maintain that kind of relationship–people couple off, life gets in the way. Relationships like that are very adolescent, in a way, and I miss them like crazy. Rob and Cassie managed to stay in that in-between place (more than friends, less than lovers) for far longer than most people–in their own private woods. And then when they (inevitably, IMO) sleep together, Cassie begins to move out of it–she, I think, would have been capable of taking that relationship to a more adult level. Rob, however, is not.
And that leads me to what happened to Jamie and Peter.
From the prologue:
They are running into legend, into sleepover stories and nightmares parents never hear … And who is it waiting on the riverbank with his hands in the willow branches, whose laughter tumbles swaying from a branch high above, whose is the face in the undergrowth in the corner of your eye, built of light and leaf-shadow, there and gone in a blink?
From Rob and Cassie’s interview with old Mrs. Fitzgerald: “My mammy… she always said it was the pooka took them.” Then Rob says:
This took me by surprise. The pooka is an ancient child-scarer out of legend, a wild mischief-making descendant of Pan and ancestor of Puck.
Google Pooka (there, I just did it for you). From Wikipedia (italics mine):
According to legend, the púca is a deft shapeshifter, capable of assuming a variety of terrifying or pleasing forms, and may appear as a horse, rabbit, goat, goblin, or dog. No matter what shape the púca takes, its fur is almost always dark. It most commonly takes the form of a sleek black horse with a flowing mane and luminescent golden eyes.
Think about all the times Rob saw a dark animal darting across the road, in the clearing in the woods, dancing at the corners of his vision, the golden eyes with long lashes at the edge of the wood, the laughter echoing in the woods after the rape. You could be forgiven for thinking the character was just going crazy, but reread those passages and tell me that doesn’t sound like the pooka.
And then, the pooka/puca is an “ancestor of Puck”. Puck, in Shakespeare and elsewhere, is a representative of that “in-between place”. From somewhere on the internet:
His talent is for shape–shifting; he is a faerie who delights in living on the borderland between the human and faerie worlds.
Jamie and Peter were running into legend. Puck is out of legend. Tana French tells us what happens in the PROLOGUE of the book.
If you still have doubts, consider the close of the novel, when a construction worker gives Rob an odd artifact he found in the woods:
I tilted it to the light: a man, no more than a stick-figure, with the wide, prolonged antlers of a stag.
That, my friend, is Puck.
And Rob? Rob doesn’t see himself as the one who was saved from Puck/the pooka; he sees himself as the one who was rejected:
Sometimes I think about the sly, flickering line that separates being spared from being rejected. Sometimes I think of the ancient gods who demanded their sacrifices be fearless and without blemish, and I wonder whether, whoever or whatever took Peter and Jamie away, it decided I wasn’t good enough.
This echoes the quote at the beginning of the novel:
Probably just somebody’s nasty black poodle. But I’ve always wondered … What if it really was Him, and He decided I wasn’t worth it?
Some might not like how this revelation delves the story into mythology bordering on the supernatural. But I love it. Peter and Jamie were taken away by some form of the puca/Puck, and because Adam/Rob was not worthy, he was left behind, and that rejection turned him into who he is today–a man/boy incapable of moving into adulthood:
In ways too dark and crucial to be called metaphorical, I never left that wood.
That’s what I think. How about you? I’d love a discussion about this!
God I miss this–spending all my time analyzing obscure texts. In college the best class I ever took was on French theater, where we’d spend hours discussing everything from Beaumarchais to Beckett. It’s honestly the reason I considered getting a PhD, just so those long classroom discussions in those Victorian-New-England-house-cum-classrooms could continue indefinitely.
But if there’s one thing this book has taught me it’s that that in-between place–in the woods–is a dangerous place to be. Sooner or later you have to cross over to the other side, or risk getting stuck there forever.