How I may have been slightly broken by a novel – In The Woods, by Tana French

I am currently reading a series of, for want of a better term, mystery novels written by Tana French. Late last night or early this morning, depending on whether you’re more likely to see the sunrise before or after a nights sleep, I finished the first of these novels, In The Woods. I found sleep difficult – first because I hadn’t finished the novel, and then because I had.

The book was not cheerful. It was not happily finished and tied up at the end. Nor will it ever be. I used the word ‘series’ earlier, but that is not entirely right. Each story is self-contained, using a support character from the previous novel as the main character for the next. Unless I am yet to learn something, the cases in the novels are not related. I cannot imagine they are, for a very simple reason: French does not seem a fan of narrative coincidence.

There are several narrative threads in In The Woods. Convention expects them all to be tied up by the end. We expect it to go well. We expect there to be conflict in the final third, and we then expect it to be all nicely resolved by the end – in one way or the other. Tana French is slightly more… realistic, in her approach. Some conflicts can not be resolved. Some mystery’s will never be solved. The novel ends… satisfactorily, it ends well, but it leaves the reader emptied and used. It could so easily be seen as a cop-out, as a premature end. The untied threads could so easily be seen as flapping loose, but they are not. French manages to convince you that the narrative has just reached the end of the thread, that there is nothing to do but leave it untied.

This is the strength of the novel and of the author. Her characters are completely believable. The interactions are a joy to read. They are fleshed out and real. They have backstories, some of which you may never know, they have quirks, they have personality. And the peace, the joy, is made so important by French’s foreshadowing. Nobody can read the uneventful day-to-day existence of characters and call it intriguing. But you can when it’s delicate. When it’s precious. When it’s limited. French manages to make the reader nostalgic for the present. Even as it’s happening, you mourn its passing. Stephen King uses foreshadowing in much the same way – obviously, almost clumsily, unmistakably, but tinged with the more subtle. Tenses, vocabulary. It works. It builds a sense of times past and gone. It makes the pleasant vulnerable. It means that every time something simple and normal happens the reader gets more and more afraid, knowing it could be the last of it. And it’s done well enough that when the pleasant is finally over, it’s still as gut wrenching and immediate as if it was done without warning.

French makes the best use of the first person narrative I have ever encountered. The novel starts with the narrator telling you who he is. He is a detective. Detectives lie, he says. Always remember detectives lie. An unreliable narrator, then? In a way. Outside of a few cautioning asides, the reader is presented with the story as the narrator originally experienced it. The first time around.
And it’s only at the end of the novel the reader can look back and see where the narrator’s influence affected the information given to the reader. The characters that we see as one thing because that’s how he sees them. The characters we see one side of because he ignores the others. The subtext we missed because he wasn’t even aware of it. So yeah, an unreliable narrator. But an honest one.
Pick up the damn book. Read it impulsively, in bursts, as quickly as you can. In as few sittings as possible. Find yourself reading it because there is literally nothing else you’d rather be doing.

From here there be spoilers. Not massive plot breaking ones, but nevertheless ones that will diminish the enjoyment of the story. Ones that won’t tell you what’s at the end of the road, but will tell you what you’ll pass along the way. Basically, for the love of god, don’t read on if you haven’t finished the thing. If you’ve gotten this far through and have no intention of reading it, then this won’t really mean anything to you anyway.
This is the novels ‘debrief’. It’s something I always do after something has touched me. I’ll go on the internet, and I’ll look for someone else who is lost and needs to make sense of their experiences. This is that. This is me writing my way out of French’s world. Just so I can get enough closure on it to dive back in to the next novel.

Upon finishing the book I was immediately thrown back to the beginning, where Ryan tells the story of how he first met Cassie. I often like to read the first chapter or so of a novel out loud to myself, if I’m somewhere I can get away with it without being committed to an institution. And in this instance, I found myself immediately softening my voice when the story started. As if Ryan was talking about a loved one. Someone who was no longer around, but whom he still loved. As if telling that story still gave him joy rather than sadness. I remember being confused at the time, trying to work out where the cue had come from. Because it wasn’t right. He was clearly talking about a close friend here, not a lover. It said so, right there in the text! And yet, it seemed the only way to do it. With a smile in his voice. And that was when I realised he was exclusively describing her in the past tense. And there, before any of the explicit foreshadowing had even began, I found a chill going through me. Because, through Ryan’s eyes, I’d already fallen a little in love with the character. And I’d just realised he was talking about her as if he had loved her, a little, and that she was dead. It’s a mark of French’s writing, I think, that even right from the start I was completely in love with her characters, and completely terrified of the end of the story.
After finishing the novel, I find myself in a strange position of almost wishing Cassie had died. That would have been easier to deal with, I think. It would have seemed less real, and, inversely, less final.

I remember having to deliberately step back from Ryan, having to try to look at the entire narrative from a different point of view. To do this, I focused on the character of Sam O’Neill. Why Sam? Because we know Cassie, and by the end of the novel, we know Cassie is with Sam. But from what we’ve seen of Sam, this seems wrong. It doesn’t seem right at all. So I realised the view the reader gets of Sam is skewed. It’s wrong and incorrect, from Ryan’s point of view. Ryan sees Sam as a mildly useless, naive addition to the real team of him and Cassie. Sam is hardly a part of the narrative. Even though he is present throughout the largest part of the novel, Ryan mentions him very little. He admits, once or twice, to forgetting his presence entirely. On a few, very rare occasions, we get a glimpse of Sam’s actual nature. Ryan thinks that ‘everyone should have a Sam’, or similar – recognising him as the rock the other characters seem to see.
And from this, I see the obvious. So obvious it shapes the entire narrative. Throughout the entire novel Ryan is thoughtlessly in love with Cassie. Whether he notices it himself is still up in the air, but it’s there. Regardless of whether the feeling is truly romantic or, as he himself says, as that of cousins, it’s there. And it’s far stronger than he ever gave it credit for.

So again credit to French: more than any other ‘unreliable narrator’ novel I have ever read, In The Woods gives the unreliability a shape. It’s not just used to question ‘did such and such an event ever happen?’, but to build character, to shape how the reader sees things. And this only works because the narrator tells us himself. By the time he is telling the story, he’s not the same person as he was during the story. He understands how he missed the importance of Cassie’s psychopath confession, and that lets the reader know. By essentially making the first person narrator two different people, French gives the novel more depth than any other first person novel I have ever read.

Even the act of leaving the secondary mystery hanging is one I love. From the prologue onwards, Ryan’s lost memories are presented as the real plot of the novel. And nothing ever comes of them. Maybe you can assume the murderer was the laughing, adult presence who also witnessed the rape. Or maybe you can run the evidence over forever: the bloodied shoes, the parallel cut/tears on the back of Ryan’s shirt. There is no happy conclusion. There is no cohesive, coherent explanation. But, as Ryan says, it’s his story. It’s one only he knows. And it’s used as his cement, in a way. It drags him through the telling of the narrative. And it leaves the reader on his page. To him, the entire case is about his past. And it’s left unknown, unanswered. Ryan ends his tale as an almost completely broken man. He is devoid of dreams, of any meaningful personal interaction. There’s not a huge amount left for Adam Ryan. He no longer cares about what happened that day. He’s completely given up on it. Somehow, through his eyes, so does the reader. They just want to wallow in their own misery and leave him to his own.

A wonderful book, and I’m heartily looking forward to the next one, but god damn, they’re hard. The man who recommended them told me that after finishing them, he wanted nothing more than to go and hug his dog. I can sympathise entirely.

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