The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan (July 2009, Gollancz, ISBN: 9780575090842)
My mother used to tell me about the ocean.
Review: The Forest of Hands and Teeth is set an unspecified number of generations into the future. However rather than society being technologically advanced, a more simple way of life, a way of survival, has been established.
Mary, lives in a small village surrounded by the Forest. The Forest is full of the Unconsecrated, people who have died and 'returned'; they are dead but still walk and constantly moan and seek to infect more people through their bites. All that separates the living from the Unconsecrated is a tall wire fence which is constantly patrolled by the Guardians. The Sisterhood looks after the spiritual, moral and legal needs of the village from their Cathedral under the leadership of Sister Tabitha.
Mary has already lost her father to the Unconsecrated and her mother watches every day at the fence to try and find him. As the book opens, Mary's mother gets too close to the fence and is infected. She has a choice to either be killed or to 'return' and join the Unconsecrated. She chooses the latter. Mary's brother Jed, unhappy with Mary for agreeing to their mother becoming one of the Unconsecrated, shuns Mary which means she must join the Sisterhood unless one of the eligible men will 'come for her' ie offer marriage. Her friend Harry will come for her but it is Travis, his brother whom she loves.
Mary has always been different. She dreams about what's beyond the Forest - are there more people, more villages - but most of all she dreams of the ocean. Her mother having told her tales of life before 'the Return', tales handed down by her grandmother and from her grandmother before her. During her time at the Sisterhood, Mary finds proof that there is more to life than in their safe village. However she will endure many tragedies before she finds some of the answers she seeks.
I was a little bit wary of picking up The Forest of Hands and Teeth as I thought zombies, ugh. But I'm so glad I did. I really enjoyed reading it and it moved me to tears at one point. The set-up grabs you in from the start: where are we, when are we, how did this happen, what lies behind the Forest? Mary, who must be around sixteen, is strong, resilient, single-minded and sometimes selfish in her desire to escape and also to get the man she loves. The other characters, initially lightly drawn, change, develop and become more real as the story progresses and they face enormous challenges. The tone of the book is tension all the way with no room for humour and you read it with your body on edge wondering what's going to happen next and even though Mary isn't a particularly likeable character I wanted her to succeed in her quest. This is a well-written debut novel which has lingered in my mind.
The Forest of Hands and Teeth has already been optioned for a film. I certainly had a vivid image of the village and the Forest and it will be interesting to compare it with the film version.
The Forest of Hands and Teeth is the first part of a trilogy, so there are plenty of unanswered questions left at the end. The second part, The Dead Tossed Waves, is out in March 2010.
Cover: I know the black cover style is in fashion at the moment but I do like this cover very much and the title is very intriguing. At one point Mary says that "I feel as though I am finally unfurling".
Carrie Ryan's website is here.