|Carrie Ryan: The Forest of Hands and Teeth
||[Jun. 17th, 2009|01:29 pm]
In the moment between my mother’s death and her Return, I stop believing in God.
In the moment I read that line, I was ready to give up on this book. Fifteen pages in and I was having a “Joanna-Trollope-The-Choir” moment of extreme irritation (which come when a supposedly intelligent character randomly and dramatically throws out the supposed irrationalism of religion for the most spurious of reasons, but which basically reads like an immature fit of daring with no real reasoning behind it). It’s only partly the fault of soap operas: introduce a religious person and what more can you do with them than have them suffer the inevitable ‘crisis of faith’ with accompanying amateurish explanations? It's a bad cliche even if you aren't theistic.
The Forest of Hands & Teeth doesn’t give the impression of being a book that would do the OTT ostentatious religion-rejection thing so I persisted, hoping that there might be some further exploration of the role of religion in forging a community and its bonds and loyalties, or of life and death – this is a book about zombies after all. But no. It turns out this is a straight-forward ‘running from the scary dead people’ story, what you might call 280 Years Later and (another irritation, to be honest) entirely, deliberately, filmic – it has already been optioned.
Some spoilers ahead: For decades a religious order has sustained with its rules and rites a village in an immense forest, which is surrounded by protective fencing and by the ravaging insane forms of the dead who have Returned to unlife. Anyone bitten by straying too close to the fence is despatched into the Forest to join their new kin by an elaborate system of gated pathways and high-wired fences. In this setting the story takes its energy initially from the social determinism of the village’s society, of men choosing their life-partners and of the main female protagonist, Mary, whose romantics inclinations are mismatched against what the village elders decide for her. The plot contrives the Ultimate Great Disaster, a breach in the gate by an Unconsecrated (a zombie) who is unnaturally faster than the others, and Mary's only escape, with her two suitors and a few others, is into the Forest of Hands and Teeth, into a maze of narrow fenced-off pathways, only one of which might lead to a new place away from zombie-danger, or possibly even the legendary Ocean that Mary has been told of by her mother. It is a nightmarish excerpt from A Midsummer Night’s Dream with lovers' tensions and quarrels in the forest; other parts reminded me of the opening scenes of Princess Mononoke, the underground passages and dedicated servanthood of the priestesses in Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan, the tree houses in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (or Tarzan, if you prefer) and the relentless chase-escape of 28 Days Later, complete with betrayals and inevitable sacrifices.
Shame to say, but considering the possibilities, it was pretty boring. The Unconsecrateed are nothing more than a nameless, faceless horror – no meaning, no understanding, even of the origin of the infection that caused their original existence; the love story is rendered trite by the endless musings of Mary on how she loves her true man, how much she dreams of the Ocean, and how no-one will believe her. She’s not the least sympathetic hero I’ve read – there’s far too much description of her feelings - tears springing to eyes, gazing, whispering, shaking of heads, sighing, almost too much to bear, realising that, impossible to think that... - in a way that seems self-conciously deliberate, whilst I was wishing Ryan would either get on with the story, or deal with the stuff that interested me: how had communities survived at all over a hundred years or more? Why was the religion ruled by a dictatorial Sisterhood but with the social rules imposed that favoured a man’s choosing, rather than women’s rights? Why and how were the Sisterhood involved in tampering with the nature of some of the Super-Zombies? Why wasn't there by now a methodical means of destroying the zombies by an organised army of volunteers/conscripts? If the zombies show intelligence to pursue a live human and trap it, where is the rest of their intelligence? If the zombies don’t need food (and persist fighting/chasing even with mashed-up/missing limbs) what is the science behind them – do they only die when decapitated and if so, why? The author is under no obligation to tell us these things but there must be some logic to it – even the zombies in 28 Days Later snuffed it eventually and naturally.
But for the filmic visualisation of the high metal-fenced narrow pathways through the forest, I was ultimately disappointed with this read. There are several books that deal with the mental and emotional effects of living in a closed community or travelling from a pursuing danger – Lois Lowry’s books, Jean Ure’s Plague 99 books, Jan Mark’s Riding Tycho/Voyager, the recent Patrick Ness The Knife of Never Letting Go (and sequel), The Road and many more – but this book never got to grips with the psychology of it all. The thrilling chase, the wrung-out love story (plus a bit of rebellion when the Sisterhood attempt to enclose Mary’s defiance by enlisting her amongst their order) are the main factors in play. There is an inevitable sequel on its way – The Dead-Tossed Waves – but I won’t be reading it.
Two stars (out of five)