Posted on March 22, 2011 | Back to Literature
REVIEWED: The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
Here be spoilers.
Not every great book has a great title, but it helps. I know, I know, you aren't supposed to judge literature by anything so trivial, but we all do it right? And let's face it, The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a great title and terribly evocative of the book's plot. Do you already know it's about zombies?
In this particular zombie apocalypse story, humankind has seemingly been reduced to a single medieval outpost surrounded by an endless forest filled with what the villagers call "The Unconsecrated," a gruesome hoard of cannibalistic zombies. The villagers' only protection is a high chain link fence built long before anyone was born by ancestors no one knows much about. There are two gates leading to fenced-in paths, but no one knows where these paths lead or who built them. In fact, it's been such a long time since the apocalypse took place, that no one in the village even remembers what the rest of the world is like... And absolutely no one is encouraged to find out. This dystopian order is enforced by The Sisterhood, a highly secretive all-female religious order who controls everything from vocation to reproduction. Enter Mary, our protagonist who is already a thorn in the side of nearly everyone in the village because she asks too many questions and, in typical teenage fashion, resists the edicts of The Sisterhood and the controlled order of the village.
In such a small community, interpersonal relationships become complicated very quickly. Mary is virtually estranged from her brother Jed, a member of the village's revered military known as The Guardians. Jed blames Mary for the death of their mother and their interactions are few and unpleasant. In addition, the Sisterhood enforces a kind of primitive eugenics program to ensure that the villagers are producing strong offspring, which leaves Mary pining for Travis, the boy she loves but whom is betrothed to her best friend. Mary has only two options: lead a celibate life with the hated Sisterhood, or wed Travis's younger brother, Harry, for whom she has no feelings but friendship. But Harry knows he is playing second fiddle to his brother and asks for someone else's hand, which forces Mary into The Sisterhood.
Suddenly, the girl who hates order and unquestioning obedience is now looking at a lifetime of both. But The Sisterhood has a citadel full of secrets, the biggest being the presence of a girl named Gabrielle, an apparent refugee from parts unknown who arrived at the village using one of the enclosed pathways. But before Mary can unlock the enigma of the newcomer, The Sisterhood sacrifices her to The Unconsecrated outside the fence. Gabrielle turns into a zombie unlike any other in the Forest of Hands and Teeth. Fast-moving and apparently more cunning, she leads the mass of undead on a successful incursion into the village. The villagers that survive are now trapped inside the citadel controlled by The Sisterhood, while Mary leads Travis, Jed, Harry and a handful of others on a desperate flight through the mysterious fenced pathways. What they discover is that their village is just one of many, all inter-connected by gated concourses that are apparently no longer used.
The small group of survivors eventually find themselves trapped in a community similar to their own, one that was overrun by the Unconsecrated ages ago. Although trapped in a network of homes and tree-houses, Mary finds her new situation strangely preferable to the life she fled. Without The Sisterhood's draconian rule, she and Travis can finally be together and they "play house" for a while as the undead seethe outside their front door. But a fire causes them to once again flee into the fenced network of pathways, all mysteriously marked with Roman numerals which the refugees cannot decipher.
As you might expect from a zombie apocalypse story, there are few uplifting moments here and in many ways the theme of the book reminds me of that old Chinese adage about being careful what you wish for because you might just get it. In an almost Faustian turn of events, Mary, the girl who wanted to see the world and escape her repressive society gets both of her wishes, but at a terrible cost. And while Mary is at times an unlikeable character – rude, aloof, selfish – the author has imbued her with a strong voice that makes her a compelling, if not always a sympathetic heroine. Certainly Mary's combination of self-pity and genuine empathy will appeal to young adult readers as she is written as a complex and realistic individual. There are moments in the book, especially toward the end as Mary and her compatriots wander the fenced-in passages through the forest, where the action drags, but overall the book is well-paced and engaging. If readers have one point of irritation, it may be that the book raises more questions than it answers in an obvious set-up for the volumes to follow. In fact, the book even contains a sample chapter from its immediate sequel, The Dead-Tossed Waves, as a clever way of whetting one's palette for what comes next. The downside to this, of course, is that the book does not work well as a stand-alone novel, which may be frustrating to some.
The Dead-Tossed Waves was released in March 2010 and the third book in the series, The Dark and Hollow Places, which should be out this Spring. A movie version is also in production.