In the Woods and Into Darkness
Book Review: "In the Woods" by Tana French
Sometimes I think that looking inside yourself, really facing your past, your decisions, the things that make you who you are, is the most terrifying thing a person can do. It’s like glancing down from the full height of a ship—that shot of vertigo that drops your stomach—and realizing that the surface of the waves is not a fixed floor, a stable boundary, but actually the beginning of an abyss into which you could fall for miles and miles. How well do you know yourself? Not very well; perhaps not at all.
These questions are the uneasy center around which Tana French’s stunning psychological mystery, In the Woods, darkly unspools. Published to acclaim in 2007, the novel follows two intertwined cases: the murder of a twelve-year-old girl, Katie Devlin, in present-day Ireland; and the disappearance of two young children in the same village, twenty-some years earlier. The link between them is Adam Ryan, the detective assigned to the Devlin case, who was with the lost children on the day they vanished but has no memory of what happened—or why he was left behind.
French lets this volatile premise unfold slowly and enticingly. The long novel is enriched by sharp detail from the rural Irish village where the murder takes place and the dingy streets of Dublin where Ryan and his partner, Cassie Maddox, work feverishly to solve the case. The pair make for a crisp and cutting team, shoring up each other’s weaknesses and playing off each other’s strengths, but it’s their battling of separate personal traumas that gives the book its psychological heft. The terror comes not from the stark, haunting ruins where the murder took place, nor the titular wood where the children disappeared, which (with the barest hint of the paranormal) seems to watch the detectives’ every move. The true darkness comes from the shadows in Ryan and Maddox’s pasts, which writhe and rise as the case disturbs memories long-buried. Ryan’s grip on reality teeters and shatters, spilling blood across the pages.
Eleven years after its publication, In the Woods feels as fresh and urgent as ever. French’s haunting tone, suspense, and plotting are nearly flawless—even if some clues were left a bit obvious, the exact structure of the conclusion is ingeniously twisted—but it’s the depth of her themes that catch and keep hold. None of us can perfectly recall our pasts; what lurks there unseen, twisting up the thoughts that form our very selves? This book leaves you shaken, cold to the pit of your stomach, long after you’ve closed the covers.
5/5; the first in a set of linked books about the Dublin Murder Squad.
“What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with the truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass.”