A review of The Killing Woods by Lucy Christopher
Chicken House (Scholastic), 2014
by REBECCA, February 24, 2014
Emily’s dad has PTSD, so when he emerges from the woods one night with the dead body of Ashlee, a girl from Emily’s school, everyone points the finger at him. Damon, Ashlee’s boyfriend, has a feeling that something more is going on than meets the eye, and so does Emily. They need each other to figure out what really happened that night, but what if solving the mystery rips everything apart?
Emily has always been close with her father, who taught her everything she knows about the woods behind their house. Even though he’s scared her sometimes, she is positive that he could never kill anyone—even if he were experiencing a flashback. Damon wakes up the morning after Mr. Shepherd carries Ashlee’s body out of the woods with no memory of what happened the night before or where Ashlee is, but everyone at school says Emily Shepherd’s father killed her. When Damon gets the chance to talk to Emily alone, he feels compelled to take it. He isn’t sure what he wants to ask her—just that he needs to talk to her. But what she has to say isn’t at all what he expects. Emily’s certainty about her father makes Damon doubt his own. Because he and Ashlee had been playing a game in the woods that night . . . and he can’t be sure of what he might have done.
The chapters of The Killing Woods alternate between Emily and Damon’s perspectives as they both attempt to uncover the truth of what happened that night. The premise of the book really appealed to me—I’m a big fan of a reconstructing-the-past story, especially when it’s a psychological reconstruction. The woods are the perfect backdrop for this story: a foggy, eerie, living world that is both escape and threat. And it’s the book’s atmosphere that does the most work. It facilitates the story of the game that Damon, Ashlee, and their friends play in the woods and the connection that Emily feels to her family’s home even when it would be easier for her and her mother to cut ties and leave town.
The atmosphere was the only part of The Killing Woods that worked well for me, however. That isn’t to say it’s a bad book. It’s accomplished and competent, with nice prose and a plot that unfolds slowly and deliberately. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to make me care about these characters, who never come to life. Both Emily and Damon are the children of veterans (Damon’s father was killed in an explosion), and I’m willing to grant that there’s a certain amount of detachment that feels realistic, given their experiences with secondary violence. But we don’t learn anything about these characters beyond what they think about the mystery they’re trying to unravel. And that’s just not enough to sustain the novel.
The distance I felt from these characters was exacerbated by the perspective-switching from chapter to chapter. It’s Damon’s reconstruction of his part in the night Ashlee died that is the crux of The Killing Woods, so it’s his perspective that is required. Emily’s process of working through her feelings about her father is written as a counterpoint, but nothing much happens from her side, so her chapters feel baggy and repetitive—they flatten out the entire narrative structure of the book, removing the peaks and valleys that typify suspenseful narratives.
Lucy Christopher repeatedly cuts away from Damon’s perspective just as he’s on the verge of remembering something, so the chapter shifts read like commercial breaks—purposeful interruptions to extend and heighten the drama. And, while the mental work Damon does to reconstruct that night is mostly interesting, this purposeful stylistic heightening of drama undercuts what actual interest there is by irritatingly stretching it out to fill more space than its content requires. The Killing Woods is a 360-page book with what feels more like a 150-page story. And, while I usually love a slow reveal, this one was both unsurprising, in terms of plot, and unsatisfying, in that the characters don’t seem to be much different at the end of the novel than they were at the beginning. Though, of course, that might be because I never really felt like I knew anything about the characters to begin with.
Overall, The Killing Woods is a totally competent suspense novel, but one without much drama or interest. It definitely does not have enough meat for readers who are looking for a character-driven story, nor is it complex enough for readers who want a mystery novel.
procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. The Killing Woods by Lucy Christopher is available now.