After The Woods, by Kim Savage

Short Take: Not at all what I was expecting. It was better.

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I’ve been on kind of a lady-thriller kick lately, and I haven’t been writing reviews, mainly because most of them tend to travel similar paths, and they all kind of blur together after a while. It was the scheming best friend, and/or the husband/boyfriend, always. I guess I’ve been craving some literary comfort food, not to mention that when I figure out the ending, I can congratulate myself on my mental superiority, no matter how obvious the clues were. I’m quite clever that way.

Except for the book that actually had a “they were dead THE WHOLE TIME!!” ending twenty years after that stopped being surprising. Seriously, that “shocking twist” is neither shocking nor a twist anymore and that particular trend in fiction needs to die out already.

But I digress. After The Woods looked to be more of the same – two girls go into the woods, and one comes out. The second girl emerges days later, traumatized, and unable to fully remember what happened.

It’s a familiar story on the surface. The prologue shows us Liv and Julia, best friends, out for a run in the woods. When Liv pulls ahead, she is grabbed by Donald Jessup, a sex offender with a huge knife and some very strange fixations. Julia catches up, tackles Jessup, and is taken hostage while Liv runs for help.

The book then jumps to nearly a year later.  Julia is in therapy, trying to remember what happened during the time of her captivity, and Liv is self-destructing with a violent new boyfriend, drugs, and an eating disorder. The press is gearing up to hound Julia for more juicy sound bites on the anniversary of The Event. And another girl’s body is found in the woods, but Donald Jessup has committed suicide months before, taking all of his secrets to the grave.  Julia is left as the one to try to figure out exactly what happened, and more importantly, why.

Adhering to my strict “no spoilers unless the book was really terrible and deserves it” policy, I’m not going to elaborate on the final outcome, other than to say that it caught me completely off-guard. I expected to be angry at [redacted] but ended up feeling pity and sorrow, along with hope for their future. That’s…. unusual for a genre in which the bad guy is always a nasty schemer with no conscience. Don’t get me wrong, there’s at least one of those (and oh what a piece of work they are!) but the humanity and empathy the author gives even her “bad” characters is unexpected, and quite lovely.

The opposite, yet equally compelling side of that is that the “good” characters have plenty of unlovely moments. Julia’s trauma often comes out as bitterness, anger, and sarcasm, and her mother, trying to protect her from further upset, usually just looks clueless and out of touch.

Another tasty little surprise was the author’s willingness to kill off her bad guy early on. It’s hard to build tension when the immediate threat is neutralized for pretty much the entire book, but Ms. Savage handled it so smoothly that Jessup’s absence was barely felt. It was a gutsy move that could have tanked the whole thing, but it worked.

My only real complaint with After The Woods was its large cast of minor characters. I get that the author was going for a claustrophobic small town vibe, but there were just too many students, teachers, parents, neighbors, newspersons, police, and even members of the clergy for a smallish book. Many of them only appeared in a scene or two, and could probably have been edited out or consolidated in some way. My sugar-soaked brain can only handle so many imaginary people in it before it rebels, especially right after the holidays.

All in all, however, After The Woods is a wonderfully layered novel. There’s the obvious surface mystery, but also so much more in the depths. I wasn’t expecting to see such nuanced examinations of friendships between high school girls, and mother-daughter relationships, and the ways in which we see and don’t see the people close to us.

The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and an old-school composition notebook. Great for nostalgia AND organizing one’s very dark thoughts.)

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