Wednesday, 24 March 2010

The Forest of Hands and Teeth, Book Review

I finished this book a week or so ago and have been debating whether or not to review it. Normally if I intensely dislike a book I stop reading. But something about this, the writing style, the questions raised, kept me reading, even though I didn't like where the book was going. I was left with a bitter taste in my mouth after I finished, half a desire to chuck the book across the room and half wondering if the author would write a sequel that answered my questions.

Then I discovered this post by Jo Walton about why reviewers tend to not post negative reviews and decided to publish this. But first, my response to Walton's article.

I don't like giving negative reviews. I'm an aspiring writer myself and understand how it feels when someone greatly dislikes your work. Writing is intensely personal for the author. The author has spent months or years working with those characters, getting everything perfect. I don't like telling them it's not perfect (at least from my point of view).

Secondly, everyone has different tastes. The reason I didn't like this book could be the very reason someone else does. That's why I started adding the 'pro' and 'con' segments upfront.

And thirdly, I don't have time to finish books I'm not enjoying (present case excepted). My desire to post about this springs more from the fact that I dedicated the extra time to finishing it as it does from my desire to 'warn others' or rant about the book.

I do understand that a reviewer not willing to give a balanced negative review now and then doesn't necessarily seem critical enough when it comes to the books they give positive reviews to. Which is why I've reviewed a few other books that I thought had literary merit even if I didn't personally like them. It's also easier to give a negative review to a book whose author is deceased (which is not the case here).

Now for the review.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth

By: Carrie Ryan

Pros: intriguing setting (fenced in villages with zombies outside), engaging writing - hard to put down

Cons: dubious moral lessons, irritating teen protagonist, too many questions left unanswered

Most of this review will be a rant of what specifically I didn't like about the book, so note the spoiler warning.

The plot: Young Mary's life takes a turn for the worst when her mother dies and the brother of the boy she likes asks for her hand in marriage. Her brother, Jed, kicks her out of the house, so she goes to live with the Sisterhood, the religious leaders of their gated community. Outside the fences lies the forest of hands and teeth, a forest inhabited by zombies, those infected by zombie bites.

I wasn't expecting a zombie book when I started this. Discovering it was a zombie book simply made it more interesting. The cover flap suggests that the story is about the secrets held by the Sisterhood and Mayr's choice to stay in the village or find a life outside it.

That's not what the book is actually about.

****** SPOILER ALERT ******

The book starts with Mary being a very sympathetic character. I was surprised when the head of the Sisterhood called her selfish. Seemed to me she was depressed over being blamed for the death of her mother, something that would psychologically harm anyone. She was also being denied a choice in her own future, she'd either have to join the Sisterhood, a vocation she was not suited for, or marry Harry, the brother of the man she loves.

As time goes on, however, her position becomes less sympathetic.

While living with the Sisterhood Mary nurses Travis, her best friend Cass's fiance and her crush, back to health. She also discovers one secret of the Sisterhood, that they've hidden a girl (Gabrielle) who is not from their village. The knowledge that there is something outside her village causes Mary to dream of the ocean from her mother's stories. She wants to see the ocean, regardless of the cost.

A few weeks later, after she's formally betrothed to the brother of the man she loves, the village is overrun by zombies. Mary, Jed & his wife, Travis, Cass and Harry manage to escape to the fenced pathway that they discover leads between villages.

They eventually reach the village Gabrielle comes from. Mary and Travis are separated from the others and trapped in a house together. They spend the next several weeks with her sitting upstairs and him downstairs. Mary's obsession to find the ocean means she can't find even 3 weeks of happiness with the man she loves. She constantly pushes others aside to reach her goal.

In the end, Mary reaches the ocean. Travis and her brother die saving her life at various points along the way.

And here's what ticked me off most about the book. Mary takes for granted the sacrifices of those around her. The apparent moral of this book is: it doesn't matter who you hurt as long as you reach your goal. That's not a moral I can agree with. That's a 'means justify the ends' mentality, when the ends aren't particularly noble. Mary wasn't finding a cure for the plague, she wanted to see water, and put others at risk in order to do so.

Don't believe me? Here's a quote from the end:
"I wait for peace and happiness but I can only think of Travis [dead] and Harry and Cass and Jacob [left behind]. About how I have lost everything but this place. I try to think about Jed, shame holding me back from remembering how he came after me. How he died saving me. But a part of me also thinks he could be proud that I made it, that I survived. That he knew what he was doing when he stormed into that Forest after me.

I feel the burden of carrying his hope with me."

The square brackets are my additions. I started from a point that shows the beginnings of remorse, but the section ends with her being sure that her brother would be happy that in his death she found the ocean. Yes, he would probably be happy she made it, but this paragraph greatly minimizes his sacrifice and ignores the fact that he had his own hopes and dreams. I'm sure he'd rather be alive than know she reached the ocean.

A second paragraph solidifies her selfishness. "And then I remember Travis pulling me against him and telling me about hope. His voice in my mind is soft, just out of reach like a spent echo. I wonder if these memories are worth holding on to. Are worth the burden. I wonder what purpose they serve."

How could she wonder what purpose remembering the life of a man who died for her would serve? it would serve to remind her of the struggles she went through to get to this place for one thing. It would remind her that others died for her dream. It would, potentially, make her humble that people loved her enough to sacrifice their own lives and dreams for her. But apparently not. She's ready to toss the memory of her first love aside the way she tossed his life aside. (Alright, to be fair she was very unhappy when he died, which makes this sentiment even more odd.) And if she ignores her own past, she'll be more likely to repeat it, letting others die for whatever new scheme she thinks up.

Mary's a woman who doesn't learn from her mistakes, who can never be happy with where she is. I wonder how long she would be content to live by the ocean before something else came up. She also never asked the questions I wanted answered with regards to her personal relationships and with regards to the Sisterhood.

It was a book that left me feeling disappointed and angry.


Kerry said...

So many people loved this book (and the sequel our shortly that is called The Dead Tossed Waves) that is nice to hear someone say pretty much what I felt.

I didn't like Mary at all. I thought she was terribly selfish and so obsessed with what she wanted that she didn't care about anyone around her, no matter how much she might think she did.

I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who didn't like this book.

Jessica Strider said...

Thanks for the comment. I kept reading, hoping Mary would change and be the character I wanted her to be (asking the questions that interested me, enjoying her time with Travis, etc.). Ah well, can't love 'em all.

Jen said...

I am so relieved to hear that I'm not the only person who didn't love this book. I'm also not a reader who usually makes herself fight to stay with a book - if it hasn't grabbed me within fifty pages, I'm done. I stuck with this one to see what happened and was disappointed.

When I finished I thought I might want to read the next one but now that I've had time to think about it, I think I'll pass.

Jessi said...

I absolutely agree with you about Mary.

I did consider reading the second book but came to my senses before it was too late. It is about Mary's daughter, Gabry, who is in love with a friend from her childhood. Sound familiar? I would go insane if I had to read about another fickle teenage girl.