Title: IN THE WOODS
Author: Tana French
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton
Edition released: June 2007
Review by: Karen Chisholm
Is it really only a month or so since IN THE WOOD was released in paperback? There's a lot of talk about this debut book, and you should be listening, the positive talk is highly deserved.
In 1984, in Knocknaree, County Dublin, Ireland, three 12 year old children - Adam, Peter and Jamie (Germaine) are playing. They've been life long friends and they go everywhere together. They are seemingly leading an idyllic childhood, with the housing estate they live in filled with young families and other children, backing onto the wood in which they regularly explore, run and play. Until the day that Peter and Jamie disappear, leaving Adam, seemingly unharmed, but terrified into total and complete amnesia. Peter and Jamie are never found. Adam and his parents move away, Adam is sent to boarding school and over the years he morphs into Rob Ryan - returned to Ireland with a posh school British accent, a policeman, attached to the local murder squad.
Cassie Maddox is only the 4th woman to join the Murder Squad, and she's young, straight out of Undercover Drugs operations - she's not exactly conventional and she's regarded with immense suspicion by many of the longer term Murder Squad Members. Cassie and Rob end up as partners and close friends. Friends only, despite the rumours and innuendo flying around.
When the body of a young girl is found on the edges of Knockarnee and the wood, Cassie is the only person who knows about Rob's past. Cassie and Rob are joined by a third investigator - Sam - and the three of them try to discover the identity of the killer of young, promising ballerina Katie. Rob's past increasingly haunts him and it starts to affect his decisions and reactions to the current day.
There are layers within layers and stories within stories in this book. Not a book for fans of the quick resolution, massive amounts of action style, IN THE WOODS weaves and wanders through an investigation that bogs down quickly with no easy suspects or motives for Katie's death. Interspersed with the investigation is a fascinating character study of 3 people working closely together. Rob and Cassie have a close, intimate relationship, without a romantic element. There is something simultaneously engaging about a close friendship that doesn't instantly morph into a sexual or romantic relationship, at the same time there's something slightly off-putting about the intimacy and closeness of these two people. There's something in Cassie's background that has obviously affected her life, we know only too well what has happened to Rob in his childhood. Into this twosome, Sam is pushed as a result of the investigation. Sam's pretty uncomplicated compared to the other two, a normal robust childhood, a slightly dodgy Uncle is about as difficult as it gets in Sam's life. He slips into the investigating threesome easily in some ways, and in other ways he's an observer, secluded and separated by the closeness of Cassie and Rob.
Overall it's the people that populate IN THE WOODS which makes it really interesting. So many people in this book are just not quite right, not exactly what they first seem to be be. Katie's life seems normal for a 12 year old girl, but there's also something that doesn't quite add up. Her sisters - the same. Her parents seem to have been loving, concerned parents, but there's also something just ever so slightly wrong. Rob seems so caring, so kind, a SNAG, but he's also haunted by what he can't remember of his past (and the snippets that he does). Does that past and that uncertainty make him vulnerable, stupid or just human. Cassie's past is also revealed, but is she a ruthless investigator or is she just as vulnerable in her own way.
There are some elements of IN THE WOODS that do drag a bit, it does bog down a little in some places and get dangerously close to repetitiveness or over-egging the angst pudding, but ultimately IN THE WOODS is fascinating. It's one of those books that twists and turns and moves and shape shifts to the point where you really don't know what you did or didn't think you knew a few pages before. And there is something for all sorts of readers to see, identify with, get annoyed about, smile and nod in agreement with, wonder about, worry about. It's also one of those books that ends with not everything nicely answered / tied up / resolved - just like life really.