In The Woods – Tana French

In The Woods. Tana French. 2007, Penguin. Edgar Award Winner. New York Times Best Seller.

I picked up a read last week. I wasn’t really in the market for a book at that moment, but decided to try it out anyways.

The premise goes: Three 12 yr old children wander from their safe haven of a neighborhood in Dublin to play in the deep surrounding woods. As the hours pass, the desperate calls of their mothers go unheard. Hours later, police find only one of the children, a boy, gripping a tree trunk in sure terror, wearing dirty ripped clothing and blood-soaked tennis shoes. To add to the suspense, the boy cannot recall on single detail of the previous hours that are behind him.

Jump to 20 years later (2004), Detective Robert Ryan keeps a deep secret from his partner, Cassie Maddox, and the rest of his associates. He is the lost and found little boy. He and Cassie are on the trail of a 12 yr old girl, found murdered in those very same woods he was found in so many years earlier. Detective Ryan has the chance of a lifetime to uncover the mystery beneath both cases, the girls and his own shadowy past.

I thought, “This is right up my ally”. Mystery, suspense, gripping tales of emotional terror and entangled lives. Unknown and unseen forces that tear the very fabric that holds these two very different lives together. What more could I really want in a book?

How about a finale. How about tying up some very important loose ends. How about not leaving your readers hanging on for 400 pages for an answer to the age-old question of “who done it?” Outside of these annoying frazzled ends (or non-ends) the book is a decent first novel for a fresh young author.

French has a structured writing style. She is meticulous in laying out the story, but graceful enough that the flow of her prose is not interrupted. This makes for a lovely read, with a cup of hot coffee (or tea) that allows your mind to create the depth of the characters and their surroundings with ease. A page-turner? In my opinion, no. But it is gripping in that fact that French takes her time to build on the climax of the relationship between the two main players in the story. Ryan is a deeply disturbed man with much sadness and un-trust sitting in his heart. His partner, Maddox is a wiry, quick-witted woman who is crass but unapologetic. Fierce with a feminine side that creeps out under dire circumstances. The complexity of the do-they don’t-they will-they won’t-they relationship they share is reminiscent of other classic relationships past (think Madeline Hayes and David Addison from Moonlighting or Dana Scully and Fox Mulder from X-Files).

In the aspect of the investigation of the 12 yr old girl, an aspiring pretentious ballerina who had deep emotional and mental with a touch of the possible physical issues, French creates a story that is both haunting and heart-rending. You will find times in the investigation; there are dips and drags, lulls and lapses, but this adds to the pace of the entire novel.

My biggest frustration with this novel is the running of the two plots that receive equal adoration from French, but only one ever sees full resolution. We are drawn into the life of the Ryan character to learn of his haggard and treacherous endeavor as a child in those woods, only to never learn why he had to endure it, or what happened to his two companions of 12. The secondary plot of the current investigation had such a hurried resolution, you lose meaning in the translation. It’s as if she was leading us on only to leave us with the “there is mystery in the uncoverable” sort of finality. It took 400 pages to come to this? That leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

I do recommend this book to those who are looking for an enthralling read. It’s a great first novel.


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