This book probably deserves five stars, but for entirely personal reasons, it was very uncomfortable for me to read the last half, and I can’t give a book five stars that my mind bends away from so strongly. It’s like when you try to push two magnets together and all they do is repel each other. They’re so similar they can’t be in close proximity with each other. My hate is so strong for this character’s actions because I understand him completely, intimately.
It’s horrible that I feel this way about such a fucked up character as Detective Rob Ryan, but this review wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that right up front. It’s not like I had some horrible effed up childhood like he did. I didn’t. (Although, I will say: everyone has their trauma.) But I do what he does. Clarification on this vague statement will have to wait until later in this review, in the spoiler section, so if you’re really curious about my mental health and all the TMI sharing I’m sure I’m about to do all up in here, stick around for that. Otherwise, I will briefly talk about the non-spoiler parts of the book I think you need to know before you read this book (and I really think you should read it).
“What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this — two things: I crave truth. And I lie. ”
SPOILER FREE SAFETY ZONE: The first thing you need to know about this book before you read it is that yes, it’s a murder mystery cum psychological suspense novel, but although the mystery is the main plot, it’s not the center of the book. This is first and foremost a character book, centered around the aforementioned Rob Ryan, nee Adam Robert Ryan. Ryan’s psyche is front and center. It is the main attraction. And that comes with expectations. Who he is determines the outcome of the story, on every level. The book is told in first person, and Rob lets you know right up front he’s an unreliable narrator. It’s the why and how of that “unreliable” that is the meat of the story.
Rob is a detective in the fictional Dublin Murder Squad. His partner, Cassie Maddox, is also his closest friend in the world. They are the ultimate ideal of friendship as the novel begins, and they are very good at their job, largely because of their close friendship. But when they catch a case out of Rob’s hometown of Knocknaree, a child murder, Rob begins a slow descent into emotional destruction that even he can’t see until it’s already too late. Rob is the same infamous little boy who walked into the woods of Knocknaree in the summer 1984 with his two best friends Jamie and Peter, and he was the only who walked out again, absent memory of anything that happened, his clothes torn and his shoes full of blood. The case was never solved, and Rob has done his best to leave that life behind, even changing his name. No one except Cassie knows he and Adam Ryan are the same person. He thinks he can handle this murder, even when it begins to look like the two cases might be connected. He is wrong.
“There was a time when I believed I was the redeemed one, the boy borne safely home on the ebb of whatever freak tide carried Peter and Jamie away. Not any more. In ways too dark and crucial to be called metaphorical, I never left that wood.”
A warning: If you are the type of person who absolutely needs mysteries tied up with a pretty bow, if ambiguity eats at your soul, this book is not for you. There is some closure and resolution, but there is also ambiguity and black holes where answers should be. I would argue that the ambiguity present here is the most powerful part of the novel because of what it says about Rob’s character. I would also argue that In the Woods gives us the best of both worlds. We get just enough closure to satisfy our needs, and we also get a heaping spoonful of heartbreaking (and if you’re me) rage-inducing character work. It’s a longish book, but it’s also a book that relies heavily on its atmosphere, which I think is helped by French’s beautiful, descriptive prose. Some people have said that it’s too long, but I think she says exactly how much she should. I think people who think it’s too long are probably the same people who will hate the ending because it doesn’t come pre-packaged and tinted with roses.
If you like mysteries, you should definitely read this book. You’ll get a mystery, but you’ll also get beautiful writing, great characters, and a book that will stay with you long after you’ve finished it.
And now, here be spoilers.
“I had learned early to assume something dark and lethal hidden at the heart of anything I loved. When I couldn’t find it, I responded, bewildered and wary, in the only way I knew how: by planting it there myself.”
SPOILERS AHOY: Okay, so I’m really not going to get all that TMI here. But I do want to talk about some things that are spoileriffic, including the ending, the lack of resolution for the 1984 case, and the dissolution of the Cassie/Rob friendship. I said up in the non-spoiler part that the center of the book is Rob’s psyche, and that’s true, but like Rob, I was also sort of lying. The real heart of this book is the the way Rob allows his issues to ruin the best relationship in his life. The story is not truly over until their friendship is dead and buried, and more importantly, we can see Rob get as close as he’s able to admitting he was wrong and that he fucked up.
It puzzles me that there are people who think this book has the wrong ending. It was never going to have any other ending. The only thing stopping us from knowing what happened in those woods thirty-one years ago is Ryan himself. He was there the night he had his panic attack that led him to sleeping with Cassie, he was remembering, and then he stopped. He chose never to remember, to push the events so far back in his mind that he could never find them. He did this either because his mind is protecting him from something so horrible it would be unbearable to know, or the more likely, that he just doesn’t want to know. He doesn’t want to have the answers. He doesn’t want to know the ending to the story, because then there would be an ending. Endings are psychologically intolerable to him, an otherwise smart well-adjusted guy, who seems to be stuck at the emotional maturity level of a twelve year old boy. He’s always waiting for Jamie and Peter to come home, and there isn’t room for anything else. And as long as he’s waiting, he will always have an excuse to fall back on. Oh, I can’t be normal, because I’m still Adam Ryan deep inside, and I can’t be fixed, so I won’t even try. It’s a vicious psychological circle. Tana French probably says it a lot more succintly than I can:
“The thing about In the Woods is that Rob Ryan is – possibly because of whatever happened when he was twelve, possibly just because of who he is – the kind of person who’s incapable of taking any irrevocable leap. Whenever he gets close to anything that’s irrevocable, he runs as far and as fast as he can – he does it in his relationship with Cassie, for example. So when he gets to the verge of remembering what happened, that’s what he does: he runs.” [source]
I had to stop reading halfway through when I realized what was happening with Cassie. It is so painfully obvious that Cassie and Rob had reached that point in their relationship, that they knew each other so well on such an intimate level, that the next logical step was to initiate a sexual relationship. It was never going to be just a sexual relationship with them, either, because they were friends first. And Rob knew that deep down; he feared it so much that even when Cassie offered him a way out, his brain pushed against the idea of that change so hard, resented her feelings so much for making him so tied to her that he unconsciously cut her out of his life entirely so he wouldn’t have to deal with any of the fallout. She would have let him back down from the sex and just be friends, but he could never do that. Once they’d had sex, for him it was either choose complete commitment or complete end of their friendship. Of course, by performing this Cassie-amputation, he not only cuts her out of his life, but cuts away pieces of himself as well. It’s only after she’s out that he realizes what he’s done, and that all of his interpretations of her actions were skewed by his own fears. And by then it’s too late. She’s already gone, their relationship shattered so badly it can never be repaired.
That’s really the saddest part of the book for me, the loss of that friendship. Even without the romantic relationship, to have a friendship that strong is something most people look for all their lives. To have someone who completely understands you, who you view more as an extension of yourself than another person. And he throws it away. Oh, he made me so angry. But I get it. I get him completely. I get the feelings of repulsion and resentment at having been tied to a person so thoroughly, the need to push so hard and so fast that whatever it is is so far away you can just forget about it because it’s gone. You’ve severed its connections to your life, and you’ve done it without your own permission, as a kind of self-preserving instinct that is ass-backwards as hell, because all it really does is destroy you. It’s a fear so ingrained it doesn’t even feel like fear anymore, a basic instinct so burned into the mind that only something traumatic or life-changing can jar it loose. I think that’s why Rob allows himself to sleep with Cassie, because his experience in the woods makes him vulnerable, and for just a second, Cassie is the safer option, the safe haven from the dark of the woods. And in the morning light when the terror of those repressed memories has faded, it’s Cassie that’s left to fear, and it’s his own unconcsious understanding that if he takes the simple step of being with her, it’s his own emotions he’ll finally have to deal with.
It’s a choice Ryan made a long time ago, probably in those woods, to always be the same kind of person. The kind of person who stands still because movement in either direction means acknowledging things they’ve been repressing, or doing the thing they fear the most. Staying still is safe, until it’s not. Your risk of falling is gone, and being in a state of emotional arrested development seems a small price to pay, but arrested development is actually an illusion. Entropy is the real name of the game. Staying still is death emotionally. You don’t just stay, you decay. It’s our relationships with other people, taking chances, doing the things we fear, that keeps us from devolving emotionally. Rob was always destined to lose Cassie, and he will lose everyone else in the future he might come to care for as well simply because true intimacy and the maintenance of lifelong relationships require mutual evolution.
I’m that kind of person, too, and I wish I wasn’t. My instinct is to stay as still as possible, but in the few times I’ve been forced to push past that instinct, the rewards have been infinitely greater than the hard work and the terror. It’s a battle I fight with myself almost daily. It’s why I’ve never had a successful relationship, and the real reason I’m having such a hard time finishing the book I’m writing, even though the excuses I use are very real — “I’m too tired when I get home from work,” “My job sucks up my creative energy,” “I’ve never met a person I like enough to try,” etc. These are just like Ryan’s excuses. The truth is we use those kinds of excuses as shields against the things we don’t want to find out about ourselves.
Man, fuck this book for making me do all this thinking and soul-searching.
I will probably regret this review almost instantly.