Book review: The Forest of Hands & Teeth, by Carrie Ryan

July 1, 2009 by
Filed under: Book reviews 

fohandteethWhat makes the zombie apocalypse so alluring to both readers and writers is not necessarily the zombies themselves, but the freedom such a scenario allows for the portrayal of human relationships. Against a gruesome backdrop of flesh eating automatons nothing else matters but the fight for survival. The lengths to which those ‘unfortunate’ enough to survive the initial breakdown of society will go to to ensure that survival, firstly of themselves, and then of the human race, form the structure and events of most of the zombie genre’s novels to date. Sometimes there is a place for hope in these books. And sometimes, albeit very,very rarely, there is time for love. Such an emotion dominates Carrie Ryan‘s wonderful debut novel The Forest of Hands & Teeth.

By setting the events about 15 to 20 years after the outbreak, Ryan is able to introduce an established belief system, a quasi-religion, to the lore of the zombie. Mary lives in an isolated village, surrounded by fences that keep out the hungry undead that wander the landscape. The village is in the middle of a huge forest that seemingly goes on forever. Or at least that is what the children and teenagers are told, for this village is governed by the Sisterhood, a group of elder women who maintain the status-quo through strict tutelage of the Scripture, a regime of hard work and constant vigilance, and a societal set-up that ensures the best possible chance for the continuance of the family line.The villagers live in fear of breaches of the fence by the Unconsecrated, and the maintenance of these defences is the responsibility of the Guardians, the healthy young men of the village. Mary is sure there is more to the world than just the village, for her mother has told her of the ocean. She questions the teachings of the Sisters and is unable to rid herself of the selfish urge to leave what she has come to consider the prison she has lived in all her life, to explore the world beyond the forest, regardless of the risks.

Mary’s mother is Infected, bitten as she gets too close to the fence, having glimpsed the wandering corpse of her husband nearby. Mary allows her mother to make the ultimate decision: to be beheaded, or be allowed to turn and released into the forest at the moment of death, to Return Unconsecrated. Her mother decides to be with her husband and to fulfil her marriage vows. Mary’s brother Jed will not forgive her decision to allow their mother such a choice and bars her from his house. Seemingly abandoned by Harry, who had expressed a desire to take her to the Harvest Celebration, and in love with his brother Travis, who has chosen hr best friend Cass, Mary is brought under the wing of the Sisterhood – for such is the fate of all unbetrothed young women. Within the thick stone walls of the Cathedral, a place of locked doors, shadowy tunnels and whispering Sisters, Mary discovers not all is as it seems – an Outsider has come through one of the gates.

The Forest of Hands & Teeth brings to mind the closeted, superstitious environment of M. Night Shamalayn’s The Village, with its reliance on ritual in daily life to hold back the unknown threat at its periphery, and possibly even at its very core. But there the simliarity ends as the Unconsecrated are absolutely recognizable, (‘they are us’, remember), and it is this closeness that creates the quandries that Mary and her friends must overcome to ensure their own survival once their secure existence becomes a desperate flight along the strange paths that lead outwards from the village through the forest.

Geek bits! Ryan, in keeping with tradition, has left the reason for the outbreak vague: with some hearsay and a few brief sentences from the Scriptures. She pays homage to the Romero films by having Mary come across an old New York Times with the headline: INFECTION SWEEPS THROUGH CENTRAL STATES: CITIZENS URGED NORTH; and the The system of ropes, gates and pulleys that manage the village’s gates, echo those seen in Day of the Dead. Her zombies are traditional shamblers that deteriorate over time through their own exertions, rather than through decay; and there’s the odd fast-paced zombie, which are seen as anomalies and possibly, an evolutionary step.

The Forest of Hands & Teeth has many strengths: in the landscape in which this tale is set; in the details, beliefs and history hinted at, or left unwritten and unspoken; and, crucially, within the first-person perspective of Mary. A girl who is forced to grow into a woman torn, trapped between a responsibility for her people, her village and a certain way of life; her passionate need to win the man she loves, and her equally romantic dreams of escape and discovery, of the ocean. A female author is somewhat of a rarity in this particular sub-genre, as is a female protagonist, so I believe Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands & Teeth will come to be seen as a unique, evocative and savagely poignant take on the post-apocalyptic world of the zombie.

And get this: it’s a young adult title. So buy one for yourself, and one for your Infected child who you keep locked up in the shed…


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