It's been a while since I have read a book that has left me so utterly devastated, a book entailing such a profound emotional investment that having finished it I feel a gaping emptiness within, a sense of loss. It feels like my heart has been simultaneously crushed into pulp under the weight of the tragedies that descend on the lives of a handful of characters and blown to smithereens. And I would never be able to pick up the pieces and glue them back together into a throbbing whole again.
I read In the Woods while on vacation, whenever I took breaks from watching wave after wave crash on to the shore with the familiar rip-roaring intensity of the sea. I read this even when I was too tired to stay up till late, lying on an unfamiliar bed with a sheet of dubious hygiene standards. I read this during prolonged car rides. And every time I had to tear my eyes away from its pages, I felt a pang of irritation.
As I made my way toward the bone-chilling climax of this narrative, awake at an unholy hour, I distinctly remember breaking out in a sweat on a cool December night to boot. Sleep became an alien entity and, come hell or high water, I knew I would not wrench myself away from this fantastic make-believe world of a small town and the sinister occurrences that tied the lives of its residents in the most twisted way possible. I longed to stay trapped in the eerie magic spell cast by the woods, under the ominous shadows of leafy canopies of pine and beech, caught up in a hazy daydream playing hide and seek with Peter, Jamie and Adam. My heart ached for the two children who never returned home from their beloved woods, who were never found again and the way the tragedy of their mystifying disappearance dealt a crushing blow to the life of their traumatized playmate who returned unharmed. It wept for Rob and Cassie and their missed chances at happiness.
This book isn't about crime and punishment, it isn't about the science of deduction or smooth-talking, fedora-sporting detectives smartly arriving at inference after inference and nabbing the culprit in style. I almost crave for the standardized simplicity of regular crime thrillers at this moment, the stories which conveniently compartmentalize the crime and the police procedure, the good guys and the bad guys. At least a book like that would not have left me feeling so desolate and bereft of any happy feeling.
But this book took my breath away with its ability to instill so much life in each one of its characters that their distress became my own, with its ornate but never ostentatious prose and the way it deftly narrated a story infused with the dull shades of a sadness so affecting. Tana French foregoes all the spick and span categorizations here, thumbs her nose at the usual pigeon-holing. Instead with consummate skill, she outlines the faint traces of humanity in the most brutal impulses, acknowledges the messed up ways in which this bizarre drama of life plays out and how a neat tying up of all loose ends seldom happens in reality. Sometimes, life is that merciless and cold.
This book is about the labyrinthine pathways of our mind which treacherously conceal our most terrifying memories and how our subconscious prods us to replace the unpleasant truths with self-justifying falsities and even establishes our faith in them. It is about the seemingly innocuous, small cruelties of mundane everyday life that are capable of triggering much bigger disasters that destroy the lives of children and the unforgivable cruelties oblivious, ignorant children are themselves capable of.
I refuse to label this electrifying debut novel mere crime fiction because, in all earnestness, it is not. Rather, it is literature which delves deep into the causality of crime and meticulously brings out the humanity of all the people involved, literature capable of wringing out empathy from even the least sensitive reader. And it is an exploration of the convoluted workings of the human mind, of evil and barbaric urges lurking somewhere in its darkest nooks and crevices. It is a cerebral suspense thriller and, without a doubt, one of the best I have ever read. But it is also a beautiful, bittersweet story about people who carry on with their broken lives shouldering the unbearable burden of past trauma, an unforgettable human drama which left me emotionally drained, agitated to the extreme and yet gasping for more.