Books Are Pretty

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

In the Woods.

It was such a pleasure to read this book. Written for people with longer attention spans, In the Woods starts off with powerful, frightening imagery - a terrified little boy is found in the woods near his home, clinging to a tree, his two best friends missing, his shoes filled with someone else's blood - then burns along slowly, building up to yet another shocking image at the end.

The meat of the story is solid, methodical police work. One of my former employees was married to a police officer. I asked her if he was able to watch police shows. My sister, an emergency room nurse, doesn't watch Grey's Anatomy or ER, because she doesn't want to be reminded of work when she isn't there. My employee said no, he doesn't, but mostly it's because in TV land, the police are "the luckiest cops in the whole wide world."

In Tana French's debut novel, this is not the case.

After the beginning, when we are introduced to that frightened little boy, we jump twenty years into the future. That little boy has grown up to be Rob Ryan, a police detective. Due to the trauma, Ryan has no memory of the incident, and barely remembers his life before it. When a little girl is found murdered on the same spot where he was found and his two schoolmates mysteriously disappeared, he and his partner Cassie think he'll be able to go home again to Knocknaree, a picturesque little town a few miles from Dublin, and work the case.

Of course, as Thomas Wolfe told us, you can't go home again. Most of the woods has been turned into an archeological site, and the entire woods, including the dig, are slated to be razed and replaced with a major highway. Rob, Cassie, and fellow detective Sam carefully compile various leads - the murdered little girl is the daughter of the man leading a protest against the highway's development: was it political? The family of the girl is hiding something very weird: was there abuse in the home? There was a mysterious, twenty-year old patch of blood found on the rock that served as a murder weapon, and an elastic ponytail holder that belonged to Rob's missing schoolmate was found near the crime scene: are the crimes related?

Rob, Cassie, and Sam carefully investigate each lead and all the directions the leads take them. Unlike the detectives on Law & Order, they become frustrated by leads that peter out, information they are unable to obtain, and false clues sprinkled throughout the case. Adding to this is the stress Rob has put on himself by surrounding himself with his own trauma, and his personality slowly begins to disintegrate, leaving Cassie and Sam to cover for him. And, as it turns out, Cassie and Sam have traumas of their own that the case has dredged up and all three come to a fork in the road: Do they let their past destroy them, or make them stronger?

In the Woods is so carefully detailed that I would have to put the book down as soon as I felt my attention wander. The book demands you bring your A game, because the scraps of clues presented in the beginning tie together in the end, and if you aren't paying attention, you'll miss it. In this regard, French is able to make the reader feel like a real detective, demanding the same level of commitment and concentration from the reader that a detective must give to an increasingly complicated case.

As the pieces begin adding up, a frightening picture begins to emerge, and French builds the tension up to its terrible conclusion. And just like life, several ends remain untied, and what is lost is as much as what is gained.

Rob Ryan is a character that is so well-developed it's almost impossible to believe he isn't real. Lonely and disconnected in a way that often seems callous, it becomes clear that the essential part of Ryan never left the woods. His refusal to acknowledge this simple truth causes him to detach from the world, watching it pass him by as he still clings to the tree, unable to run, unable to cry for help. The child he used to be has been deeply buried inside Ryan, along with much of his memory and his soul. He lives with an ex-girlfriend in a cordial, but strained relationship. Although he views her with contempt, he makes no effort to improve his living situation. He has no friends, no girlfriend, and parents he rarely speaks to, but makes no effort to alleviate his loneliness. Cassie, his partner, is his whole world, and when the stress of the case begins to take its toll on him, he reacts by picking away at his one real, solid anchor, Cassie's loyalty, instead of reaching for the love he is sure to receive.

His partner, Cassie, is glorious. A brilliant detective often hamstrung by the relentless sexism in her department, Cassie's strength and resilience seems bottomless. Her detective work is flawless, and, unlike Ryan, she draws strength from her mistakes and uses her awful, secret past to her advantage later in life. She is the girl everyone wants to be, and every moment spent with Cassie shines.

In the Woods is an impressive debut novel. It traps you in its world and keeps you there for several days after the last page is read, musing over what was, and what might have been. And that is a book of the very best kind.

In the Woods
by Tana French
May 2008 by Penguin
Paperback, 464pp
ISBN: 0-14311-349-6

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