IN A DARK, DARK WOOD (2015/16)
Simon & Schuster, 310 pp.
English writer Ruth Ware's debut novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood, draws comparisons to Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and Paula Hawkins (The Girl of the Train). Both are apt, if by those analogies, we mean the creepy undertones of Flynn and the inner psychological torment of Hawkins. Ware's novel is a thrilling and skin-crawling read–one I tore through in just two nights.
This surprised me, as the book's set-up is one that would have normally sent me running the other way. Its central character is twenty-six-year-old Leonora Shaw ("Nora"), a London writer with few friends and a loner lifestyle that suits her just fine. Out of the blue she gets an email inviting her to take part in a "hen" party–the British term for a bachelorette gathering–for Clare Cavendish. Clare had been a close friend from childhood, but Nora's literally not had contact with her for ten years. Her first impulse is to delete the email, but her only really close friend Nina, a lanky Brazilian doctor, got a similar email. Neither wishes to go, but the email's sender and event organizer, Flo, insists that Clare would be devastated if they didn't accept. So Nora and Nina decide to give it a shot.
What ensues is like something out of Agatha Christie, except the creepy house in this case is a sterile glass-sided modernist mistake plopped down in a rural section of Northumberland at the end of a rutted lane and so hemmed in by trees that's there's no Internet or cell phone coverage. Nora and Nina are among a select few guests, the others being Tom, a gay actor/director; Melanie, a neurotic new mother; and Flo, the hen party organizer equivalent of a Bridezilla. Flo declares herself Clare's best friend, but she's also obviously a few bubbles off plumb and so fragile that each aspect of the party must go off exactly as she envisions it, lest sturm und drang wash away the house and all in it. For her part, Clare seems as haughty and privileged as Nora and Nina remembered.
So what do you do? Nora and Nina are freaked out–the house has no curtains, for heaven's sake–but is this just the paranoia that city slickers often feel when they go into the country? No one else is very comfortable either, but wouldn't you just tell yourself, "Hey, it's just 48 hours," and suck it up? Bad idea!
Ware serves up a taut mystery that involves many twists, including a deft use of a dramatic trope known as Chekhov's gun. There's also suspicion run wild, old wounds reopened, obsession, accidents, amnesia, and maybe some pigeons (clay and human) set up for a fall. Much like the character Rachel in The Girl in the Train, poor Nora is pushed into such a state that she can't access or trust her own memories. And she's not the only one. In a Dark, Dark Wood is a clichéd title, but it's also a satisfying page-turner. I'll say no more, except to offer this advice: If you find yourself in a creepy setting, it's a terrible idea to mess with a Ouija board.