This book left me feeling, I don't know, maybe bereft is the word? Having read Faithful Place and Even Stevens's review of In the Woods, I knew I wasn't going to have a run-of-the-mill mystery on my hands, and In the Woods did not disappoint. The story has lingered in my head even weeks after I finished reading it.
As I've written before, one of the reasons I find mysteries so lovely and fun to read is because much of the time, the character I'm most attached to is fundamentally separate from the central drama of the story. Even when the detective or whatever is in danger, you sort of know that for the story to continue he or she needs to be ok, right? At the end of the story there's usually a putting-everything-in-its-placeness that makes me feel like a little kid picking up my toys at the end of an afternoon of play. French takes our assumptions of safety and just totally crushes them. To great effect! To survive is not necessarily to be alright and to look for answers is not necessarily to find them.
Let me tell you what the book is about, before I continue to make vague, mysterious pronouncements: a young girl's body is found at an archeological site outside the village of Knocknaree, which itself is a detached suburb of Dublin built in the seventies in some sort of developers-gone-wild frenzy. Two detectives from Dublin's elite murder squad are assigned to the case: Cassie Maddox (a fantastically realized female character, can I just mention that? no wonder she's the star of French's second novel) and Rob Ryan. As it turns out, Ryan himself grew up in Knocknaree, and was probably the only survivor of three children who went missing there in the eighties. He was known as Adam Ryan then, and after his two friends disappeared (never to be seen again), he was found clinging to a tree in the woods outside Knocknaree, his shoes soaked in blood and his memory wiped utterly clean of whatever horror he may have witnessed. Rob keeps his past a secret, even when he becomes involved in the investigation of the newer murder. He's drawn to the new case (inevitably, one feels) and for the first time in his life, he is forced to come to terms with how his childhood experience shaped him.
One thing I like to do when I really enjoy a book is to go on Amazon and read people's reviews of it, so I can feel vindication and contempt for other readers, in turn, depending on whether they agree with me or not. Obviously! So without going into details that will spoil this book for you, I will say that there's controversy all up in the ratings, but that's because French doesn't treat her characters like toys. Like any really good writer, she's willing to make her characters face the one un-faceable thing in their lives (and isn't that why we read good books?); she doesn't seem content with low stakes or facile endings.
My one little quibble: at times, this book was maybe a little over-written, especially when compared to Faithful Place. French is such a sensuous writer that it's probably inevitable that her prose occasionally gets a little overwrought. It's interesting to see how French is evolving, and I for one am looking forward to reading more of her stuff.