Apologies in advance for this rather gibberishly excited review
I have been in desperate need of a good book for a long time, so naturally, for this month’s TBR I planned to go back to basics by reading psychological thrillers again. Longing to get my hands on a goodie, after much consideration, I finally reached for Ruth Ware‘s In a Dark, Dark Wood.
Despite having very little knowledge or expectation going into the book, my friend persistently reminded me of its awesomeness and wouldn’t rest until I read it. She told me the book was so good that she consumed it in one sitting, which also was the case when she read Ware’s follow-up, The Woman in Cabin 10.
She wasn’t kidding, either. In a Dark, Dark Wood will definitely keep readers flipping through the pages well into the night, for better or worse.
To give you an idea of the book here’s a very unofficial, informal premise of the book, crafted by yours truly:
When Leonora “Nora” Shaw receives an invitation by a certain Florence Clay to a hen party in honor of her estranged friend Clare Cavendish, she thinks it’s a strange offering. After all, Nora and Clare have not spoken to each other in at least a decade, so it’s quite the random gesture when she realizes she’s been added to the guest list, among her other college peers, to celebrate Clare’s recent engagement. To whom, however, we do not know. Yet.
“After all this time, why me?” Nora thinks.
After Nora is acquiesced into attending by her old classmate, Nina, whom was also invited, the answers to her questions become more or less apparent. When they arrive to Clare’s old college leisure place, a seemingly remote abode belonging to Flo’s aunt—encased in the deep Northumberland wood—stranger things begin to happen, which trigger all sorts of repressed memories which explain Nora’s unspoken distance between she and Clare. Painful secrets surface in drunken banter; inexplicable footsteps are found in the snow outside their lodging; and an escalating sense of dishonesty leads to acts of unthinkable violence and betrayal, among other devastating things which makes bridging the gap between falsehood and reality.
I must say, it’s been a very long time since I’ve read a book as breakneck and engaging as In a Dark, Dark Wood; but I am grateful I finally took it off my shelf, nonetheless. I don’t know how (or why) I allowed it to collect dust on my shelf for over a year now, but I guess much of the reason behind putting it off was attributed to the disappointment I felt after reading Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing and Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects and Dark Places. Unlike the other titles, however, I had no reservations or expectations about the book; and maybe that’s why I enjoyed reading this one so much and was able to speed through it so fast. I don’t know, but I’m ready to talk about all the feelings I experienced throughout In a Dark, Dark Wood.
This review contains some spoilers and quotes from the book
Even though it took me almost 100 pages to realize it, I already had my suspicions about a few characters—looking at you, Flo! Still, I had to keep an open mind because there was a ton of creepy, telltale shit that went on in that glass house that made me weary of just about everyone. However, the sentiments I had about these characters remained exactly the same:
1) Someone kill Flo plz
2) Stop trying to make “Nora” happen
3) Throw shade like Nina
Let’s get the obvious suspect out of the way first: Flo, the controlling, over-emotional friend who exhibits an obsessive, almost lesbian-like protectiveness over Clare. Can anyone say, Single White Female?! (Also, I couldn’t believe Nina actually references SWF in the book, which also made me feel a bit more proud). Reading into Flo’s character, you can’t really help but imagine an off-kilter psychopathic woman with a taste for perfection and, most obviously, Clare!
Needless to say, Flo might have been bat-shit crazy, but she was too easy a suspect in my eyes; and if you’re a fan of Law & Order: SVU then you know the criminal is never the first one you’d expect, and especially not the most obvious.
As interesting as it was to read more about Flo, she seems to have been the most undeveloped character in the book, which was odd considering she’s the one moderating this hen. I think it was a weird thing of Ware to do to make Flo this compulsive friend without any knowledge or explanation of her connection to Clare; it just seemed rather strange that she was so devoted to someone who didn’t seem as devoted (or interested) in Flo. The affection is never quite reciprocated in the book, and in the end, Flo’s purpose in this story remains a mystery to me.
Ware does an amazing job at pacing her story with just enough context so that it doesn’t feel like she’s suffocating her reader with too much back story. I particularly liked the sudden present-day shift in Chapter 4, when we learn Nora has been hospitalized after a collision incident, which inhibits her memory of what led to the car crash that started it all.
You’d think I’d be bored with these debilitating memory tropes by now, what with having read it in books like Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. Yet, unlike the former, Ware uses memory to her advantage more fluidly and naturally so that it isn’t as detectable or obvious. The use of sensory details also helped push the plot along so that it didn’t drag; in fact, I’d say sight holds just as much functional importance as memory.
Memory is responsible for a lot of the tension in the book as these characters are constantly forced to reopen old wounds from their pasts, which are more or less caused by one another. Not to mention, the “glass house” sort of eclipses that ability to remember things properly. It’s a very strange way to think about it, I know, but there are so many mentions of the wood and how dark and daunting and massive it is that it almost becomes a character of its own.
“Standing like this, I could look out of the window, though it was too dark to see much. The bright bathroom light turned the glass into a sort of mirror, and aside from a pale, ghostly moon, all I could see was my own body reflected in the fast-steaming glass as I soaped and shaved my legs. What kind of person was Flo’s aunt anyway? This was a house for voyeurs. No, that was people who liked to watch. What was the opposite? Exhibitionists.
People who liked to be seen.” – Chapter 7
All throughout the book, there’s this overarching motif of transparency; there are this constant insinuation and suspicion of what lurks in the wood. The juxtaposition of what can and cannot be seen or determined makes this book all the more exciting as a mystery. As Tom explained earlier in Chapter 2, the forest and glass house act very much like an audience and stage. The glass house is where the spectacle takes place, and the actors are often unbeknownst of the spectators, much like how the guests are to whatever (or whoever) is looming in the wood. I loved the personification, whether it was intended or not.
It may just be instinct, or too much SVU (or both), but whenever I read into a mystery I always try to understand the motive behind a person’s actions. With that being said, I couldn’t quite pinpoint the culprit of James’ murder. Unlike most other mystery books I read, my initial investigation had been thwarted because I literally suspected no one.
Flo is outlandish and annoying, but in the end, she sadly becomes an all-around jettisoned character. Which is sort of sad considering the entire focus of her character orbits around Clare, and there was an explanation for her fixation. And don’t say it’s because she was a “good friend” to her because that literally meant nothing in the end.
Not to mention, we never really discover what she meant when she said she had dirt on them in Chapter 18. What did she know about them? What dirt?! What the fuck did Flo know, you guys? Did I skim over something too fast?! Tell me if there’s something I’m missing because she just seems like a discarded character to me.
“Maybe it was a real message. After all, I know some things about you, about you all.”
The guests in this book were really random to me, and I saw no flaws in their character that would lead me to believe they’re capable of murder: Nina is a hilarious asshole throughout the entire book but that’s about it; Melanie was never involved, really; and Tom is literally useless as a character. That only left Clare and Nora, who are the only two characters that really had a feasible excuse to off James, if you ask me.
Clare could have murdered James because, as we learn, he never intended to end things with Nora, which meant there was some initial fear of the two of them reuniting. Then there’s Nora, who could have murdered James out of spite; still, I felt even that was hardly likely to be the case. The whole “scorned lover out for revenge” doesn’t really do it for me, and so I couldn’t immediately suspect Nora as the one to plot her ex-lover’s death. Nonetheless, it’s all we were working with.
Personally, I was stumped. I didn’t know who did what, and for the first time, I trusted the author to really give a convincing, fashionable ending to the mystery. And oh man, I am so glad I did because let me tell you something right now: Ruth Ware is one talented fucking amazing writer and she drops hints like no other.
I am usually a very observant and patient reader, and so it’s not unlike me to not read over the same passage more than once (which I did a lot with this book). So when I tell you I literally fell out when I realized I made the biggest oversight in my life when I reached the twist I couldn’t fucking believe it!
This is the probably the first and only time I’ve said this about an author other than Flynn, but Ware is getting major points with me for the way she turned this story on its head the way she did. I nearly slapped myself silly after I made a certain oversight in those final chapters! Ware certainly gets my respect, and In a Dark, Dark Wood will absolutely hold a spot next to Gone Girl for that very reason alone.
Even though this isn’t necessarily a spoiler-free review, for the sake of my wanting others to read the book as well I’ll just say this much: messages and names are very important!
In short, Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood is one helluva mystery and rightfully earns its place next to the aforementioned titles. I’m so sold on this woman’s writing now that I might just dive into TWiC10 this weekend because I’m already craving more from her.