Thursday, November 20, 2014

Book Review: "In the Woods" (Tana French)

Warning: This post contains spoilers about In the Woods by Tana French.

In her debut psychological thriller In the Woods, author Tana French weaves an intriguing story between the past and the present time. Twenty years ago, two young children disappeared in the woods around Knocknaree, Ireland, outside Dublin, and the third child involved, friends with the other two, who was found and rescued but left traumatized and with amnesia. The case remains unsolved.

In the present day, that third child, the one who was rescued, has grown up: he's called Rob Ryan, a change from his childhood name, and he's a detective in the murder jurisdiction of the local law enforcement. He and his partner Cassie, a long-time friend, take a case set in the very woods surrounding Knocknaree where Ryan was rescued and his friends vanished so long ago.

Now, a young girl is found, brutally murdered, on the site of an archaeological dig where experts work frantically to rescue as many artifacts as possible before a government-sanctioned roadway is built straight through the area, contrary to most of the residents' preferences. The girl's family gives every indication that something is wrong, but without a thorough investigation that drags Ryan back through all the hideous memories resurfacing from his past, he and Cassie will never find out what it is, let alone where the girl was murdered, who killed her, and whether her death had anything to do with her father's stance against the new roadway.

If the back copy of the book had not told me that the work was a psychological thriller, I might have called it literary fiction. The writing is dense and rich, with lovingly detailed descriptions that painted beautiful pictures of setting and people and conversations in my head as I read. Stylistically, it's a long work, with a first-person point-of-view narrator (Ryan) and the occasional omniscient break-in (most of the descriptions aren't rendered in Ryan's voice) that French manages to make seamless.

My favorite character of the work was Cassie Maddox, Ryan's partner, for her down-to-earth practicality and sisterly determination to protect Ryan from the current case and what it might make him remember of his past. Their relationship, that of best friends or blood relatives, is both intimate and platonic, involved and easy.

Skipping between Ryan's experiences in the present day and his slowly returning memories of his childhood maintains the tension and suspense throughout the work to the very end, where --- to be entirely honest --- I really didn't suspect the person who turned out to be the girl's killer. It was a shock, and something of a horrified realization when I finally put two and two together and came up with five in my head (sort of a "So that's why things never added up ..." moment).

I was, however, disappointed in the work as a whole. By the final chapters, there is little closure or redeemable quality to the work.

Warning: Spoilers Follow

For instance, while the girl's killer is discovered, circumstances make it impossible to convince a jury of the killer's guilt. Meanwhile, Ryan makes a number of really irrational decisions and winds up distancing himself from everybody, even alienating his own partners on the case, and gets himself into serious career trouble. His partnership with Cassie is entirely demolished, without hope of resurrection.

Finally, to my disgust, the unexplained disappearance of Ryan's two friends and his trauma in the woods twenty years earlier ... is never resolved. Ryan's memories slip away; no new clues emerge; there is no new evidence to point to what happened. I was left wondering why on earth that old story had even been mentioned in relation to the current present-day narrative, since neither apparently had anything to do with the other.

It seems to me that when a book begins with a prologue that lures the reader in so explicitly with a mysterious, psychologically frightening puzzle of the sort presented by Ryan's childhood story, the book is also making an implicit promise to the reader: to tie up the loose ends somehow by the end of the book, to provide an answer to the riddle or a solution to the puzzle or at least closure in some way.

As it turned out, I felt cheated, having read more than four hundred pages of close text to discover ... nothing.

I had hoped to be as impressed with In the Woods as other readers seem to be --- the work was a New York Times bestseller and an Edgar Award Winner, after all --- but I remain disappointed, and I can't see any reason to pick up her second book, The Likeness, though it seems to be a companion novel to this one, to find out whether there's any more closure by its conclusion.

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Title: In the Woods
Author: Tana French
ISBN: 978-0-14-311349-2
Purchase here:

Disclaimer: The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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