Dark but gripping debut
Carrie Ryan's debut novel, The Forest of Hands and Teeth, is a dark, dense, and meaningful book. Though it wasn't what I was expecting, it more than made up for that with its strong writing, complex world, and exploration of difficult issues.
Mary has grown up in a fenced village her entire life, kept in by the fear and mortal risk of being attacked by the Unconsecrated. The village, believed to be the only hub of humanity remaining, follows strict rules as dictated by the Sisterhood to keep themselves intact. However, based on the stories her mother told her, Mary believes there is more to the world beyond the fence. Soon, Mary finds herself and those she loves in danger, questioning all she has been taught and struggling for ways to survive.
Told in first person, Ryan's writing style flows easily and is evocative of Mary's inner thoughts. The style is somewhat messy, with run-ons and sentence fragments, but it works. The character's voice and her wishes/desires seem real for her age. Mary comes across as selfish and unconcerned about how her actions affect others. Other reviewers have mentioned this made it difficult to connect with her. While I agree, I found Mary's thoughts and motivations honestly reflective of a teen girl with dreams of greater things outside the fence. The novel also explores many complex issues, including love vs. commitment, personal vs. communal fulfillment, and change vs. tradition. The monsters in Ryan's book, the Unconsecrated, are truly scary. As the reader, you never doubt the mortal danger they pose. The experiences of Mary and her small group are harrowing and real.
Though I enjoyed the book, there were some weak points. The book is very dark with only a glimmer of hope. Some plot elements, like the breach of the fence and the ending, seemed contrived. They were there as obvious ways to move the plot forward and to set up the sequel. The love connections between characters were not explored or developed very deeply. It seemed more like lust or reaching for something outside of oneself, not love. I did like, however, one of the scenes near the end that Ryan wrote to show that we often take love for granted and don't realize the strength of our connection to others until it is too late.
All in all, /Forest/ was a great but dark read. If you're looking for a young adult novel with more weight and meaning than usual, I highly recommend it. I'm looking forward to the continuation of the story in the sequel, The Dead-Tossed Waves (Forest of Hands and Teeth, Book 2).