Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Review: The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

I've been curious about this book for a while now. Some of the things that are written on the cover (mine is different then the one I have here) definitely intrigued me. Romance amid a post-apocolyptic world filled with flesh eating zombies? I had to know how someone was going to pull it off. It sounded interesting, but it also sounded like it could be a recipe for disaster, full of characters doing things that made no sense.

I need not have worried. Though there are things The Forest of Hands and Teeth does that I question, making sense does not go on that list. Carrie Ryan is not afraid to show us a grim reality that could become our own if this disaster were to happen. Yet her method is carefully constructed, in my opinion, making the reader feel like they are on a safari ride or reading a diary rather then being thrust headlong into the problem itself.

This book does not fit my normal way of reviewing things, but I will do my best to share my thoughts with all of you.

The Plot: (Summary from GoodReads)
In Mary's world there are simple truths. The Sisterhood always knows best. The Guardians will protect and serve. The Unconsecrated will never relent. And you must always mind the fence that surrounds the village; the fence that protects the village from the Forest of Hands and Teeth. But, slowly, Mary’s truths are failing her. She’s learning things she never wanted to know about the Sisterhood and its secrets, and the Guardians and their power, and about the Unconsecrated and their relentlessness. When the fence is breached and her world is thrown into chaos, she must choose between her village and her future—between the one she loves and the one who loves her. And she must face the truth about the Forest of Hands and Teeth. Could there be life outside a world surrounded in so much death?

On the surface it's easy to think that this book is about death. But by the time I got to the end of it, the thing that it had me contemplating was what it means to be alive. If we take a step beyond the basics of eat, sleep, breathe, making babies, die... What actually separates living from just surviving? Is that something worth fighting for?

Mary seems to think so. Despite the horrors of the world that she lives in, she seems to recognize that the response of the community she has grown up in is just as bad, or worse, then the creatures that are in the forest. I like how Carrie Ryan took so much time and effort showing us the nuances of Mary's world before the fence goes down and all hell breaks lose. It shows us what she has to lose, and how that is both a good and a bad thing.

It seems very clear to me that a lot of time and effort was taken to build and design this society so that it would intrigue and draw the reader in. Truthfully, I found myself very compelled by this part of the book and although I could see how broken the world was I felt like I was reading someone's diary from another culture, another place and time.

The latter half of the book, while more action based, did not grab me quite as strongly. Carrie Ryan has a very peculiar style of writing that is very description and interior monologue heavy, and very dialogue light. This, for me, created a certain level of distance between me, Mary, and the rest of the characters. It worked really well for describing history and customs and traditions. But when danger was lurking it took away from the pull of that because I never really felt a deep connection with the characters. I read that they were in jeopardy, I intellectually acknowledged this, but I never "felt" it. I never really feared for them, even when things were at their worst. I think this may have been intentional. Even at arm's length this was a very intense book. If I'd been permitted to attach to characters who met bad ends, I would have cried. 

Part of me questions whether that might have made the book better. Not that it wasn't "good", but as harrowing as it could have been, wasn't that the point? Carrie Ryan seems a capable writer. I believe this was a conscious decision, not an inability to express what she wanted to get across.

The Characters:

Mary is interesting and complex. Considering the world that Carrie created, this was the only way it would have worked. If Mary's narrative hadn't been something I could buy into, I likely wouldn't have been able to finish the story. But from beginning to end, Mary faces challenges, mingled with tiny wisps of joy, mingled with losses big and small. Reading this book, for me, was like reading her diary. And between her personality, the world she inhabits and the choices she makes, that was a fascinating read.

The trouble with a diary, however, is that everything is very, very, ***very*** filtered through the viewpoint of the person who recorded the words. This worked as a protection for the reader, as I have said earlier. But it also lessened the impact that some events of the story could have had. Considering how the book ends I can see why Carrie chose to write it that way, but it's certainly not a style that I am use to. I tend to like to connect with as many characters in a book as possible. The fact that I read about the things I did in this book and finished it dry eyed is shocking. It kind of reminds me of reading accounts in history texts back in high school. (By the way, I mean that in a *good* way -- I was very interested in history.) It's not a method of writing that is common in fiction.

The Romance:

What romance? *looks to the left, looks to the right*

If the point is that Mary's only love is the ocean, and in the end she is united with it, perhaps I can give you that. But in the traditional sense of the concept of "romance" as I know it, this book broke all the rules. A romance requires a memorable heroine and hero -- and as I have already said, the only character with real depth was Mary. A romance must make the reader want to see two characters unite, and ideally must give us good reasons why they should be together. Yet again, I did not see this.

In a sense, it seems to me that the fulfillment of Mary's desire to see the ocean actually came at the cost of love. Which is very interesting and raises some worth while questions. But in short: when I pick up a book and see it billed as "A postopocolyptic romance of the first order" the writer had better be ready to deliver the goods. 

I know that some of you are likely rolling your eyes. Or you are arguing things like "I think Romeo and Juliet is romantic", or "How about Wuthering Heights? Couldn't the man at the end be a symbol of hope like Cathy and Hareton are at the end of that?" Here's the thing: This book is a YA novel. Consider the various romances of this genre and what readers of this genre expect when they see the word romance. Anyone who makes this argument has a valid point from a literary standing, but in the end I must associate it to the genre from which it came. This did not *ruin* the book for me. But it definitely left me baffled as a reader, and a bit annoyed for anyone who went into this strictly for "romance". (Personally, I enjoyed the world building.)

Please note that this did *not* effect my rating. I don't dock hearts on a book for lacking romance -- only for the romance that is present being weak or boring. I honestly don't feel that romance was the focus of this book at all. If anything, The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a cautionary tale of all the ways that love can go wrong or be used against us. The comment I quoted, in my honest opinion, is there to help sell it. Because romance in YA sells *huge*. If the type of romance that people like in YA is what is drawing someone to this book, I want them to know what they are getting into before they buy it. It's an extremely interesting book. But it's not a romance.

In General:

I've given this book a really hard time in my review. And I knew that I would. I knew this review was going to be difficult to write and that what I wanted to say is likely all jumbled up. Because there is a lot to say about this book, but to really clarify it would involve giving things away and I don't want to do that. So let me say this: I really enjoyed The Forest of Hands and Teeth. Really, truly enjoyed it. I want to get the other two books in the series. I want to know what happens.

But you need to know what you are getting into before you open the cover. This is not a story about a boy and a girl getting together and falling in love. This is a story of love, yes. But it is about what it means, what we are willing to do for it, what is more important then it, and what we feel if we find out we felt it too late. It's a story of survival. A story of faith. A story of courage. The Forest of Hands and Teeth is not an easy road to tread. But as a reader, it is a journey that I am glad that I took.


  1. Great Review! I loved the Forest of Hands and Teeth, but I like the second and third one better. I happen to think the third one, the Dark and Hollow Places is much better. Mary, and Gabry(from the second one) are a bit whiny, and I had a deep connection to the characters in the third one. Very good review, Thanks for sharing!!

  2. Hmm, this makes me associate it with "The Hunger Games". There was a lot of story building in there as well, and unfortunately I don't have patience to read too much of it. I might check it out at some later point though. Thanks for the great review ;)

  3. I haven’t read the series/trilogy yet, but I really want to now! Great IMM!

  4. I actually really enjoyed this series but I agree with some of the points you had - especially the romance. I just liked the action/zombie part of it haha. Book 2 is a completely different character - Mary,s daughter and book 3 is another protag. too (book 3 is by far the best one). I'm curious to see what you think of the rest. Glad you could still enjoy it!

    Xpresso Reads

  5. Great review! I haven't read the books yet, for some reason they keep ending up on the bottom of my To Be Read list.

    PS - Cheers to another Canadian Blogger!! :)


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