In the Woods by Tana French (audio)

Loading up on audiobooks for the big drive to Texas and back, I made an unusual call: I chose to reread a book, or rather to listen to one I’d read years before. Life is mostly too short for rereads, but: 1, I love Tana French and have read everything of hers already. 2, I found this one on a best-of list of some sort, I think specifically referring to the audiobook (or else it’s just that I discovered late that she is especially good on audio, because of the Irish accents). 3, I am that lucky mystery fan who forgets plots and can therefore enjoy them again and anyway 4, I read this one of hers first and (mostly importantly) before I had this blog. So, off on the big drive with this excellent book…

…which it turns out I had forgotten wholly, because the plot scarcely felt familiar at all past the introductory scenes. First, a prologue flashback: in 1984, in a Dublin suburb, three 12-year-old best friends don’t come home when called for tea. Two of them, a boy and a girl, will never be seen again. The third, Adam, is found with his broken fingernails dug into a tree’s bark, with blood in his shoes but unharmed. He is catatonic and unable to help the police with their investigations. He goes away to boarding school; his family moves away; and then the reader discovers that he is the novel’s narrator, now a grown murder detective who goes by the name Rob Ryan (having taken his middle name to avoid his rocky past). Hilariously, Rob believes that his career choice has nothing to do with his lost childhood best friends.

In the present, some twenty years later, the body of a murdered child turns up in the very same suburb, in the same woods (now much abbreviated by development, and under controversy as a freeway expansion runs up against an archeological dig). Ryan and his partner and best friend, Cassie Maddox, pull the case, despite being rather the young misfits of the department. Unbelievably, the murder squad does not know that Rob Ryan was once Adam Ryan, the very famous found boy of that old–and possibly connected–crime. Cassie is the only one, beside Rob’s parents (whom he feels he barely knows), who knows his identity.

In the Woods is an atmospheric, contemplatively-paced mystery novel in two timelines. As Ryan works on the present-day murder, he also probes at his own lost memories of that childhood trauma. It is also the story of relationships: Rob and Cassie share a very special bond, a very special friendship, which both resists and succumbs to stereotypes. I think it’s worth remarking that I do not actually like Rob Ryan, our narrator, protagonist, and therefore one might expect our hero. He isn’t that. Cassie is a compelling and likeable character, but since she is only seen through Ryan’s eyes (we get the story from him), I fear she never quite becomes fully known–not only in the way that none of us ever really knows anyone, but also because for all his adoration and attempts to understand her, she is finally a cipher for Ryan’s own issues. Perhaps what disappoints me most about him is that even after all his complexities and soul-searching, Ryan winds up predictable after all. I do not like him in the end.

The plot is however not predictable, even to this rereader. In fact, as I think about other Tana French books, it’s not actually the whodunit solution that I remember, but the atmosphere, the experience of being in the story as it unfolds. There were times when the pacing felt a bit off, when I felt we spent too much time wallowing, and that feels perhaps familiar from other T. French novels as well, but that’s a fairly minor quibble when I think about how real these characters felt. Also, the accents are completely wonderful on audio, which I think is the best way to do Tana French.

As I write this review, I’ve let too much time pass (because vacation), and already the denouement’s details are fading for me, but the relationships – between Ryan and Maddox, and other ones – still feel very near to me, the personalities and the conflicts. And I’ll always be back for more French.


Rating: 8 home-cooked meals.

One Response

  1. […] got this title off some list of bests somewhere, and queued it up behind In the Woods on the return trip from Texas. It was a delightful, weird, engrossing adventure. I am going to be […]

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