Fiction Reviews

The Forest of Hands & Teeth

(2009) Carrie Ryan, Gollancz, 9.99 / Aus$29.99, hrdbk, 320 pp, ISBN 978-0-575-09084-2


Mary's simple village is surrounded by a fence, a fence that is always maintained and watched. Beyond the fence are the woods and in the woods there are the 'Unconsecrated'. The rambling, shambling Unconsecrated must never breach the fence and enter the village. The Unconsecrated must never bite you or you too will become Unconsecrated. These are the facts of life.

Yet for Mary life goes on. She is torn between the young man whom she loves and the young man who loves her. Nonetheless she does wonder. Is there anything beyond the woods and the moaning Unconsecrated? For instance, her mother told her that her many-greats grandmother had paddled in a huge expanse of water that stretched as far as the eye could see: it was apparently called an 'ocean'. But Mary was not sure whether or not she believed such a tale.

Then one day circumstance dictated that Mary and some companions must enter the Forest of Hands and Teeth and begin to find out about the world beyond...

Carrie Ryan has crafted a wonderful debut novel that could so easily become a modern cult classic to sit alongside Matheson's I Am Legend (1954) or Strieber's The Hunger (1980). Indeed The Forest of Hands & Teeth has something in common with this last title. The Hunger is about immortals who take the essence of humans. As that book progresses we discover that they have at times been hounded in history with burnings and stakes driven through their hearts, so that we suddenly realise that the book is about vampires, though the 'v' word itself is never used. Alas Strieber's back blurb copywriter did use the 'v' word and so spoiled that novel for unsuspecting readers. Similarly with The Forest of Hands & Teeth the 'z' word is never used though (unlike with The Hunger) it is clear from the first few pages as to what is going on.

Ryan's style is one of an easy read. Her prose is clear and it succinctly develops the plot. Also, though the plot's subject is violent and potentially gory, the matter-of-fact, concise delivery does not dwell on the blood and guts but on the immediacy of the circumstance. It is almost like one of Wyndham's cosy catastrophes. This lack of realism is ironically realistic. Mary has lived with her situation all her life: she knows nothing else and so of course she views what is going on as almost mundane. Troubling, yes. Worrying, yes. But at the same time this is the way life is. Such a style, and that the protagonist is a teenager on the verge of becoming a woman, lends this book being marketable to juvenile readers and indeed it is, though Gollancz (and presumably the North American publishers Delacorte Press) do rightly say that The Forest of Hands & Teeth does crossover into adult appeal. Though I go with many authors in intensely disliking age banding, clearly this is a book that older teenagers should enjoy especially as there is this 'coming of age' undertone that lends the novel a feel somewhat reminiscent of that cadre of work typically represented by Angela Carter's Company of Wolves.

This being Ryan's first novel, I am not sure where she will go next? At the moment I get the feeling from her website that she is hedging her bets as far as a mainstream future is concerned, or whether she will go genre. Of course if she can become accepted by mainstream critics who may not view it as that silly stuff, speculative fiction, then she could do quite well as she will capture both markets. Having said that if she does go genre will she turn to science fantasy or horror? My feeling is the latter. Dig a little deeper beneath the initial suspension of disbelief at the concept trope, and there are a number of illogicalities which an experienced SF writer would sort out. However I will not be so churlish as to dwell on these as Ryan's writing carries you effortlessly across the inconsistencies. Whatever her future, be it mainstream, SF or horror, she will certainly be someone to watch.

Must go now. The garden fence needs mending.

Jonathan Cowie

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