You know that painful feeling of being seriously out-of-step with the rest of the world? Not being satisfied with what makes almost everyone else content or even deeply happy? That's the experience Mary, the narrator of Carrie Ryan's The Forest of Hands and Teeth, suffers through most of the book. It was also mine on reading some of the many glowing reviews the book has received since its US publication earlier this year.
Mary's world is a stiflingly small one, a world shrunk, as far as she knows, to a few hundred survivors of a zombie apocalypse. She lives in a village surrounded by the Forest of the title, where the Unconsecrated, as the zombies are known, are kept Outside by a huge fence. The Return (all capitals are the book's), or zombie apocalypse, happened generations ago and everyone has been taught that theirs is the only village left in the world. The village is run by the Sisterhood, a female religious order of apparently Christian origin, to judge by the mentions of their Scripture and Christmas Eve.
Mary's father was a Guardian, one of the men whose sole job is protecting the village from the Unconsecrated. He was lost some months before the book begins, while off tending to the fences, and hasn't been seen since. Mary and her brother Jed have been trying not to leave their mother alone, afraid of what she might do if she were to see their father among the Unconsecrated who cluster at the fence, hungering for human flesh. The action of the book starts when Jed is on patrol checking the fences, and Mary has been delayed from returning to her mother by her friend Harry, who asks her to become betrothed to him. Harry and Mary are interrupted by the sounding of the village siren, supposedly warning that the fences have been breached. In this case it means rather that Mary's mother has got close enough to the fence to be bitten by the Unconsecrated. Having become an Infected, she will inevitably die and Return. Rather puzzlingly, the Sisterhood has decided that a person infected may choose, if still rational, whether to be killed immediately (thereby somehow saving their soul) or be allowed to die of the infection and become an Unconsecrated. The latter seems to be the choice made by those crazed with the pain of seeing a loved one as Unconsecrated, and is the choice Mary's mother makes.
This is certainly all grim, but things get considerably worse. Jed returns, blames Mary for the loss of their mother and refuses to allow her to live with him and his wife Beth in the family's house. As Harry doesn't speak for Mary, she has no choice but to join the Sisterhood, despite having lost her faith in God when her mother died. Some weeks later, Harry's brother Travis is brought to the sisters with a badly broken leg and Mary is allowed to visit him every day and help nurse him. Although she is supposed to be praying with him, in fact Mary comforts Travis by telling him the stories her mother used to tell her about the ocean, which represents a whole world they can only barely believe exists. Inexplicably, Harry now speaks for Mary after all. Though very much in love with Travis (who is betrothed to her best friend Cassie), Mary feels she has no choice but to agree, and the final ceremony binding them in marriage is just about to be celebrated when the siren sounds again. This time the village has been overrun.
Although the village is prepared for this eventuality, with platforms built into trees as a refuge, Mary, Harry, and a little boy Harry rescues are unable to reach them, and have to escape through a gate to a fenced path which leads into the forest. They are soon joined by Cassie and Travis, who can't climb the ladder to the platform because of his damaged leg. Finally Jed and his wife Beth arrive as well. At this point they realise that everyone in the village is lost and they have no choice but to follow the path, not knowing where it leads. Mary alone feels some excitement at the prospect of discovering the world that—thanks to some furtive investigating while among the Sisterhood—she now knows exists beyond their village, while the others, understandably, are shocked and grieved to have lost friends, family and the only place they've ever believed was still inhabited by living people.
It's easy from this summary to see how bleak the book is, but what I found quite surprising is how lacking in suspense it felt—and this comes from someone who found Shaun of the Dead frightening at times. The Unconsecrated don't overwhelm the village until over a third of the way in, and much of the narrative up to this point is given over to establishing Mary's aloneness, her longing for Travis, and the horror of living in such a repressive and powerless society. One problem with the book is its tendency to vacillate between being primarily a love-story and primarily a horror/survival story. It's possible for this combination to work well, of course—for example Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments series, and much of Buffy, are packed with tormented love and plenty of suspense. However, after all Mary's yearning and thwarted desire for Travis, when she finally is alone with him and they have acknowledged their love for each other, there is a sense of anticlimax. There are pages and pages describing Mary's realisation that Travis isn't enough for her, that she still feels lonely, empty, and that Travis knows she doesn't love him in the way he loves her. "I have taken to spending most of my time up on the porch on the third floor, a place where Travis can't reach me because of his leg. I don't know what he does all day as I sit on the edge of the wooden boards, my legs dangling out in the air over the Unconsecrated below" (p. 209). Conversely, the suspense over whether Mary will escape the ever-present danger of the Unconsecrated is diminished not only by the passages in which she yearns for Travis, but also by the many times she wonders whether existence mightn't be simpler for the Unconsecrated, being "only about one need, one desire" (p. 184). She even considers letting herself get bitten: "I think about slipping a finger through the fence and into her mouth. Letting her consume me and infect me. Being done with the path and the longing that's too painful to bear" (p. 167).
I found Mary difficult, even impossible, to engage with. Of course, whether one finds a character likeable, sympathetic, or interesting is a highly personal reaction. But to me she seemed tediously self-absorbed. When they are escaping down the fenced path, Cassie becomes overwhelmed at the loss of her parents, her sister and everyone else she knows in the village, and is comforted by Travis. Just seeing this makes Mary jealous and angry, though she tells herself she should be more understanding: "I know their pain. I understand it, have lived with that kind of regret. I know I should feel sympathy. I know we are in this as one. But I can't stop the heat, the rage from curling in my stomach" (p. 165). In response to her anger, she explodes with a secret that devastates Harry, Travis and Jed, and though she feels shame and guilt, her final thought is "But at least I know that Travis now hurts as much as I do" (p. 166).
The narrative voice doesn't help. One of the numerous passages in which Mary thinks about the possibility of another life gives a good flavour:
The Outsider is my excuse to leave this village. Now that there's proof, now that our entire village will know that there is more, that we are no longer an island, now is our time to reconnect with the Outside world.
Nothing can contain us any longer. Not when word of the Outsider gets out. And I will be the first through the gate. I will be the one to lead us to the ocean. To the place untouched by the Unconsecrated. (p. 61)
Repetition is a constant feature of Mary's narration, to the point that it begins to read like a writerly tic. It's certainly possible to create a bleak post-apocalyptic atmosphere through spare, carefully chosen language, Janni Lee Simner's The Bones of Faerie being a recent example, but repetitiveness isn't in itself necessarily poetic. Passages in which Mary and Travis discover their mutual passion border on bathos at times: "And then he takes my hand and presses his lips against my palm. It feels like fire entering my bloodstream and laying siege to my body. He kisses my wrist, and I am an inferno." Immediately after this, she jumps out the window of Travis's room to avoid being discovered there by the Sisters, and is "covered in snow that instantly douses [her] skin, which just moments before had been aflame" (p.58). There are also several instances in which the repetitive style becomes merely banal. For example:
Similarly, even though our little sanctuary is surrounded by unrelenting Unconsecrated, we seem to be safe inside, thick shutters reinforced by bars covering each window downstairs. While the Unconsecrated never cease to push themselves against the walls and doors, we are tucked away inside and safe until their persistence overwhelms the strength of our fortifications. (p. 198)
Yes, people often are safe until they're not.
All this said, neither the prose style nor the lack of engagement with the main character was my biggest problem with the book; far worse is that it so often simply doesn't make sense. Authors of this type of fantasy have a great deal of freedom in how they construct their world (or worlds), but once that's done, it has to have as much internal consistency and logic as any other type of writing. A world after a zombie apocalypse is a nice premise for a YA fantasy, and a change from the vampire urban fantasies so popular recently. Having the protagonist live in a village surrounded by zombies who are kept out by fences could work, if intelligently done. The story of a society fallen into totalitarian repression after losing their history, both social and personal, is a powerful one. But once I started noticing inconsistencies and contradictions in this setting, more and more kept appearing, and there was finally no way I could believe any of it.
One of the more obvious problems concerns the strength and threat of the Unconsecrated. Even if one is able to put aside disbelief that zombies have managed to take over most of the world but are nonetheless contained by metal fences, there are difficulties. Villagers seem to be regularly lost or infected, sometimes while out on patrol, like Mary's father, but sometimes in other ways: "My mother knew to never get too close to the fences—to the Unconsecrated. Too many in our village have been lost that way" (p. 8). Why? Are we supposed to believe the Unconsecrated can get their faces through the wire to bite someone standing near the fence? If, on the other hand, Mary's father was lost because there'd been a breach of the defences, the village would have been overrun in short order unless other Guardians with him had managed to fight them back. (In which case, Mary's family wouldn't have been left wondering what happened to him.) With respect to the numbers, the Unconsecrated can be "killed" by decapitation or burning, and Mary has no trouble dispatching a strong, newly-turned one—as well as managing to take care of twenty by shooting arrows in their skulls from the porch. What happens to the Unconsecrated naturally over time is rather unclear, but the undead bodies do not survive indefinitely; at one point we're told "They do not rot, do not decay, only slowly pull themselves apart" (p. 183). At another, that any "live human cast into the Forest is nothing but food for the Unconsecrated who will tear at their flesh and eat until there is nothing left" (pp. 10-11), implying that very few people should be infected and Return, rather than being devoured. Given all these facts, which suggest numbers should be steadily diminishing, why the sudden and final overwhelming of both Mary's and another village in a period of a few months?
Another problem is the powerful and duplicitous Sisterhood: nothing in the book explains how a group of women came to be so firmly in charge in a society that's otherwise very patriarchal, when they have no method for enforcing their rule. Nor is there any way to understand the motivation for their deceit and secrecy, as they seem at times to be fanatics who do believe they do what they have to to keep the village safe and at others to have different purposes entirely. This might be effective if the villainous religious group wasn't such a very common trope in fantasy novels; Ryan's version is too sketchily done to stand out.
When Mary and her companions finally reach the other village, which has also been overrun by Unconsecrated, Mary marvels at the level of preparation she sees, with elaborate structures in the trees, well stocked with supplies and weapons. The large solid house in which Mary and Travis hide—conveniently they manage to find the only one in the village not occupied by Unconsecrated—is similarly supplied with enough weapons and food to keep the two of them going for years, it seems to Mary. And yet, as this village was actually overrun by the zombies, why are the ladders on the platforms left down, considering that anyone who sought refuge there would have pulled ladders up after them? Why are the weapons neatly on the walls and the provisions likewise in the pantry of the house they shelter in, not to mention all windows and doors intact? Given the extreme level of preparedness in this village, it impossible to see how the whole village could have been overrun so completely and instantaneously that not even one person managed to escape to the platforms, or to barricade themselves inside the strongly fortified house.
Even worse, Mary and Travis shelter safely in the house for weeks, while the Unconsecrated push against the solid, heavily bolted wooden doors and shuttered windows. When they do finally manage to break through into the house, they follow Mary and Travis up the stairs and somehow manage to reach the bottom of the "heavy trapdoor" secured with "thick bolts" to the attic and push up against it hard enough to break it open in mere hours. This requires a degree of strength and coordination impossible to reconcile with the depiction of the Unconsecrated everywhere else in the book.
Then there are old cuttings from The New York Times Mary finds in the attic of the house she and Travis are living in, giving the reader information about the Return in what strikes me as a very awkward way. The headlines go from "INFECTION SWEEPS THROUGH CENTRAL STATES" to "GOVERNMENT MOVED TO SECRET LOCATION" to "NEW YORK CITY UNDER SIEGE" (p.240). With photographs. It's hard to imagine a paper copy of a newspaper being printed and delivered around the country as normal, with New York City under siege. Not to mention the fact that the papers with news about the Return have been carefully cut out and stored in a trunk in the attic, for all the world like a holiday scrapbook.
There is to be a sequel, which could perhaps explain some of these seeming inconsistencies. Well, not the ones that defy physics. Those who were deeply engaged with Mary's plight will probably not care about the problems of logic that bothered me anyway, wanting to discover whether Mary can survive and achieve her dream of finding a world where she can live without the constant fear of the Unconsecrated. However, I can't imagine any explanations that would be enough to overcome my loss of belief in the world of The Forest of Hands and Teeth.
Hallie O'Donovan lives in County Dublin with two daughters, two dogs, and a precarious stack of books at the end of the bed which will almost definitely take just one or two more.
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