Review: In a Dark, Dark Wood

Today I have for you my hands-down favorite summer read so far. It is chilling. It is emotional. It is fast-paced and frightening. This is the perfect read for a warm summer night in the countryside. I’m talking about Ruth Ware’s debut novel In a Dark, Dark Wood.

When I read the premise of this book, I was interested, but for some incomprehensible reason I put it back on the bookstore shelf twice, and in the end only checked it out of the library. I think it was that the premise did not accurately convey what was in the book. None of it was wrong, but there’s oh, so much more to it.

About the book: Nora Shaw is happy with her new life. But then she receives an email from Clare’s new best friend: Clare is getting married, and her friend is organizing a hen weekend for Clare before the wedding. It’s short notice, and Nora hasn’t spoken to Clare in ten years, but the best friend is insistent and Nora’s good friend Nina will attend with her. Despite misgivings, they drive inadarkdarkwoodout to the glass house in the middle of the woods to meet a new cast of friends Clare has acquired, none of whom have anything in common. Nora begins to suspect that someone else is out there in the woods, watching them, and coming much too close. Tensions are high, and strange noises begin to terrify them all. Something terrible happens when an outsider appears in the house. Nora wakes up in the hospital with vague memories of running through the woods covered in blood, a car crash on the main road, and a certainty that someone is dead. She can’t remember what she’s done or what’s happened to herself or the rest of the group, and the doctors and police are less than forthcoming. The worst part is, if she’d known whom Clare was marrying she wouldn’t have attended the hen weekend at all. And if she’d paid more attention to all that trouble ten years ago, none of them would’ve been in their present situation at all. Now that the truth is coming out, it is far, far too late.

More to love:

First of all, the layout of this book is incredible. A head injury causes a gap in Nora’s memory that the narration goes back and forth across, between the events leading up to that terrible night in the woods and the aftermath, finally coming to meet in the middle. The transitions are so smooth and well-constructed that the time frame is never confusing and the arc of tension through the story keeps on a steady rise until the final climactic moment runs its course. In addition to these two story lines, the reader is also given hints about the ten year-old drama which is freshly opened by Clare and Nora’s reunion. This is not something that can be simply buried in the past–it will never be forgotten, even by those like Nina who never quite understood the whole story.

Secondly, Nora has an alluring narrative voice. She provides immersive commentary on how she sees the world around her through the eyes of a writer, and continually points out that as a writer she’s a practiced manipulator of truth and possibility, which occasionally leaves the reader wondering just how far she can be trusted. Furthermore, as a writer, Nora has become incredibly observant–noting awkward silences, peculiar mannerisms, and unspoken tensions in social situations that make it easy for readers to understand and sympathize with her character. I love characters that seem so realistic that the reader almost expects them to walk off the page, and Nora is certainly that. She’s also very self-aware, which gives her the chance both to demonstrate what kind of person she is, and what she thinks about the kind of person she is:

“There are days when I don’t hear a single human voice, apart from the radio, and you know what? I quite like that. It’s a good existence for a writer, in many ways–alone with the voices in your head, the characters you’ve created. In the silence they become very real. But it’s not necessarily the healthiest way to live.”

Nora is, by choice, a very solitary creature. This makes her reactions to the setting of the hen weekend and her interactions with the other people in the house particularly interesting, because everything makes her uncomfortable. Between the inconveniences of the snowy weather, the secluded location, and Clare’s crazily determined best friend, Nora is essentially trapped with them all for the weekend. The emotional distress Clare has caused and the feeling of entrapment heighten Nora’s senses, and she picks up strange details:

“He turned to look out of the great glass window, out into the forest…After a moment I follow his gaze…you could see the blank white lawn stretched out, a perfect unbroken snowy carpet, and the sentinel trees, their trunks bare and prickly beneath the canopy. It should have made me feel better–that you could see the blank, unspoiled canvas, visual evidence that we were alone, that whoever had disturbed the snow before had not come back. But somehow it was not reassuring. It made it feel even more stagelike, like the floodlights that illuminate the stage, and cast the audience into a black morass beyond its golden pool, unseen watchers in the darkness.”

And if things in a single timeline aren’t creepy enough, future Nora is frantically trying to remember what horrible predicament she was in by the end of the weekend, leaving foreshadowed clues through the beginning of the story and tense comments about the stakes and obstacles that still stand in her way toward the end:

“The brain doesn’t remember well. It tells stories. It fills in the gaps, and implants those fantasies as memories. I have to try to get the facts… But I don’t know if I’m remembering what happened–or what I want to have happened. I am a writer. I’m a professional liar. It’s hard to know when to stop, you know? You see a gap in the narrative, you want to fill it with a reason, a motive, a plausible explanation. And the harder I push, the more the facts dissolve beneath my fingers…”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars, most definitely. I love modern psychological thrillers. I love reading about characters that seem so real and normal you could run into them on the street and become friends under the right circumstances. I love stories where someone dies–you just know the writer is open to all of the possibilities if she/he is willing to eliminate major characters, and it prevents the plot becoming predictable. I love books that are a little creepy, a little tragic, a little romantic. I love broken timelines. I love stories that are so captivating I have to read them cover to cover in a single day. I didn’t even need to read the premise of Ruth Ware’s second book, The Woman in Cabin 10, before rushing out to buy it (I will most definitely be reading and reviewing that one within the month). In a Dark, Dark Wood is a jaw-dropping, skin-crawling, perfectly twisted summer read that I highly recommend to thriller readers.

Further Recommendations:

  1. Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. I’ve already recommended this one occasionally, but the movie’s coming out soon and if you have any interest at all in a twisted, thrilling murder set around London with very realistic characters, now is the time to pick this one up. You can find my review for this book here.
  2. The Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll. This is another great thriller with a manipulated timeline. Although I did not relate as well to the main character of The Luckiest Girl Alive, she is undoubtedly strong, mysterious, and possibly even more intriguing because of her unpredictability. You can find my review for this book here.

Coming up Next: I will be reviewing After You, the satisfying sequel to Jojo Moyes’ best-known novel, Me Before You. Be sure to check it out if you liked Me Before You, because I think the sequel is even better, and still closely linked to the events of the first book. I may also be posting a July book haul and August TBR list because I’ve acquired some great books for my shelves and I’ve got an ambitious reading plan for the next few weeks.

What have you read lately that gave you a delightful scare?

The Literary Elephant

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