A review of The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
Delacorte Press (Random House), 2009
by REBECCA, December 31, 2012
On the cusp of a brand new year I offer you a book about a world that has been overrun by zombies. Cheers!
Mary has always believed what the Sisterhood told them: the Unconsecrated that batter the fences protecting their village from the forest beyond will never stop; that their village is the last bastion of humanity and they stay there forever, and marry whom they’re told; and above all else, they must obey the Sisterhood, which makes the rules. But when a stranger from beyond the fence shows up, Mary discovers that what the Sisterhood has told everyone is far from the truth.
First things first: The Forest of Hands and Teeth has to be one of my favorite book titles of all time, and its sequel, The Dead-Tossed Waves, ain’t too shabby either.
Unlike many in the village, Mary was raised with stories of a time before the Unconsecrated reined, and the ocean, in particular, fascinates her and drives her to want to see the world outside the fences. The Sisterhood has propagated the story that their village contains the only humans left in all the world, but one day, an outsider arrives in the village, causing Mary to question everything she has believed. When she does some poking around she learns secrets that the Sisterhood has been keeping. Secrets that might change everything. Soon after, when the Unconsecrated breach the fences, Mary takes off into the woods with Travis, the boy she loves, Travis’ brother Harry, who loves Mary but whom Mary sees as only a friend, and Cass, Mary’s best friend whom Travis loves. They set off down the path that leads away from their village. It’s a path they’ve looked at all their lives, but where it leads nobody knows. Mary hopes it might take them to the sea. But even if it does, they have to fight their way through or die trying.
The Forest of Hands and Teeth has wonderful atmosphere, and I think the writing is good. It’s divided into two rough halves: the first half in the village and the second half Mary and her friends’ journey through the woods. This is nice because the first half is quiet, with a kind of lurking threat. It’s very claustrophobic, evoking Mary’s feelings of being trapped in her life, and it develops the characters. Then the second half is much faster-paced and plot-driven.
No one remembers where the paths go. Some say they are there as escape routes, others say they are there so that we can travel deep into the Forest for wood. We only know that one points to the rising sun and the other to the setting sun. I am sure our ancestors knew where the paths led, but, just like almost everything else about the world before the Return, that knowledge has been lost. We are our own memory-keepers and we have failed ourselves. (28-9)
The atmosphere is the book’s biggest strength, I think, and Carrie Ryan does a great job of maintaining the book’s tenseness even in moments about other things. For example, nearly all the moments in the book that could be sweet or tender are instead desperate, or paired with disaster:
Harry grins and he drops his head toward me and all I can think about is how I had never wanted Harry to be my first kiss, and then before his lips can land on mine we hear it. The siren. It is so old and so rarely used these days that it starts out with a creak and a wheeze and then it is full-blown.” (6)
what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?
The Forest of Hands and Teeth is, first and foremost, a dystopia. It happens to be a dystopia with zombies, but it’s definitely a dystopia. As such, it has the familiar hallmarks of the genre: a repressive regime (this one religious in nature) that depends upon the threat of the Unconsecrated (the zombies) to keep the villagers in line, and the obfuscation of the truth about the wider world. It also, unfortunately, has the rampant sexism (despite being run by women) of many contemporary YA dystopias. (I write further about this topic HERE.)
I really enjoyed the book. It succeeds as a dystopia and also as a zombie novel, and it was nice to read something that is legitimately scary but also isn’t straight-up horror. What I didn’t love were the character relationships. As you could no doubt tell from the character cluster above, this is something of a love quadrangle, although the romance does not trump the adventure, to be sure. The relationships are a bit awkward, and I didn’t really find myself caring for the characters overmuch. Now, ordinarily, being annoyed by the characters’ youth and romantic follies would make me not like a book, but I want to be clear that I really liked The Forest of Hands and Teeth despite my issues with the characters—liked it and continued on with the series.
One thing that I was particularly pleased by was the ending of the book (no spoilers, I promise). I am notoriously dissatisfied with endings these days, especially the endings of books in series. It seems like so many of them just abdicate any obligation to craft an ending because we know there’s more of the story between two future covers. Not so The Forest of Hands and Teeth. Ryan writes a lovely ending, both in terms of how it satisfies the journey of the book and in terms of how well it sets up The Dead-Tossed Waves.
The Forest of Hands and Teeth has, naturally, been tapped for production and it looks like the movie will be out next year.
procured from: the library