[digg=http://digg.com/arts_culture/Book_Review_The_Forest_of_Hands_and_Teeth]I hate post-apocalyptic books and movies with a passion. I wince when Mr. Pop Culture Curmudgeon wants to watch Mad Max or The Road Warrior. The thought of being forced to watch or read The Postman gives me shivers. The only book I didn’t finish in my comparative literature class in college was Riddley Walker.
I had some misgivings when I started Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth and realized that it was a post-apocalyptic tale. I soldiered through the first few pages, quickly drawn in to the story of Mary, a girl on the cusp of womanhood living in a village under siege by the zombie hordes. She watches as those she has grown up with and those closest to her become infected with the disease that causes them to return after death as mindless, shambling creatures intent only on savoring the flesh of the living. The broken bodies of these Unconsecrated keep coming, stopping only when they are decapitated.
Circumstances lead Mary to join the nuns of the Sisterhood rather than pursue the boy she loves and dreams of marrying. She fools herself into thinking that she can be content to live within the confines of a village surrounded by zombies, with only the stories of a world outside, a world before the Return, a world where people have hope, to keep her company. Until an Outsider appears in the Village.
The arrival of this Outsider, a girl very much like Mary, changes everything and leads Mary to begin a quest for a life outside of the village.
The author of the Shifters series, Rachel Vincent, described this as a beautiful zombie book on her blog. She was right. It contained the human element that is missing from most post-apocalyptic stories I’ve come across. Stephen King’s The Stand is a notable exception, but it’s claim to fame is the government conspiracy and the sweeping nature of the struggle between good and evil. The Forest of Hands and Teeth is much smaller in scale, but not in meaning. Mary is fighting for her life, and her fight becomes the measure by which we gauge everything else that may be going on in the world. If Mary is unable to keep her hope alive, then all hope in the world will die. It takes a skillful storyteller to put the weight of the world behind a story that in less skilled hands would be small.
This book, Carrie Ryan’s first published novel, reminded me of The Dazzle of Day, Molly Gloss’s debut novel. Both stories were told by a female protagonist who felt constrained by her circumstances. Both also represent hope for the future of humanity. Both are written in a similar style by writers with a strong voice. But where Gloss’s book gives us no one to root for, we cannot help but root for Mary with every fiber of our beings. We feel her pain and her brief moments of happiness. And, more important, we care.
I recommend this book wholeheartedly.
Edited to add: Apparently, they are fast-tracking this book into movie production. Read more about that here.