Book Review: In a Ho-Hum Wood.

I don’t like to write reviews that are less than positive, unless I can talk about something important where it isn’t really the book, itself, that has failed, but some other aspect of society where we are failing and the book is emblematic of it. Indeed, quite a lot of people have purchased and read and loved the book IN A DARK, DARK WOOD by Ruth Ware. And, that’s fine. The book itself is the sort of book for people who aren’t me, who aren’t just quite as jaded about the sort of things I’m jaded about. I mean, with over 2000 reviews on Amazon alone, and a bestseller by any measure,  I am certainly an outlier in my experience with the text. I’m not a core Thriller person. I’m not a core mystery person. I think it’s important to read around a little bit, though, and see what’s happening in other places in the library than my usual. I checked it out of the library, and I return it to the library, and I expect no more books by this author will cross my desk for a while. And, she’s doing great, without me, so…

The book is a bit obvious in its setup, which is fine, and not really a problem. It’s going to be a Hen Night for some estranged friends from school, who each have some secrets they’d prefer to keep to themselves. Our protagonist, Leonora, is a bit of a recluse, now. She writes mystery novels for a living, lives modestly, and jogs instead of being with people. She had a falling out in school with her best friend from childhood, Clare, and doesn’t like to talk about what happened. But, of course, it is fundamental to understanding the reason why things happen as they do, naturally. Nora goes on this Hen Weekend, despite not being invited to the wedding, seemingly on a whim, and because a friend she actually likes will only go if Nora goes. So, that’s the set up. Once upon the grounds of the facility, we know something dreadful is going to happen. We don’t really know why, and we know someone is killed. For much of the book it’s all a mystery, and that’s perfectly fine. After all, it is a mystery novel. It is being told in flashback by a Leonora who is recovering from a terrible car accident in a hospital and also recounting what she remembers to the police. The other people there for the Hen Weekend are all kind of cruel to each other, and it’s hard to see why any of them even pretend to be friends. The bride is manipulative and cold. Her friends are awful and awful to each other. Even the narrator and her best friend, Nina, who room together for the weekend, are pretty terrible to each other. Of course, something terrible is going to happen. Ominous things rise ominously, and eventually someone ends up dead, and the car accident is revealed for what it was: an attempted murder by a sociopathic person who wishes to stop the wedding with death.

Okay, that’s the book. It’s typical of its genre, and it’s sold a bajillion copies and Ruth Ware is doing very well with many more books out. If you like the sort of books that wear the costume of mystery and thriller and just hurry on up through a few twists to and misdirections – some of them very artificial and cloying – to present the sociopath that tried to fool everyone, well, there’s a book for you. Personally, I did not care for it. Okay. What I have issue with isn’t necessarily her book. It’s sort of endemic to the genre, right now, and a bit of a trend. It’s two things, actually: Memory loss as plot device and Sociopaths as plot motivation. So, for much of the text, the narrator is trying to remember the accident. She had a head wound, and doesn’t remember the brief moments around the accident.

Around the time of Planescape:Torment in the video game world, it seemed absolutely every game was using memory loss in some capacity as a motivator for the action and narrative, and the only one that used it well was Planescape:Torment. Heroes wanted to uncover their dark and twisted pasts. It got bad. It’s still bad. It’s a cliche, really., and people still make their games around memory loss. Final Fantasy VII is being remade and central to the sprawling plot is the memory issues of the main character. And, it’s still a cliche. A few books and movies and games do it very well, but they are very few. On the whole, to readers who read a lot and widely, it often feels like an artificial construct of a writer using tricks of poorly-understood brain phenomena to construct their plot. Science writers must hate this. Science fiction writers often do. It’s astonishing how convenient the amnesia always seems to be. And, it never ever seems to line up with what we know scientists are telling us about the memory loss. How convenient that just the bits that artificially create drama are the very things that are forgotten, when it would make for a much more interesting cat-and-mouse game, at least in the case of Ruth Ware’s text, if the sociopath was apparent much earlier, and that knowledge of her true nature clouded all the things she did and said to the group during their portentious Hen Weekend.

Right, so it’s annoying to be kept in the dark simply because the character has developed plot-central amnesia. And, after the success of Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL, it’s something of a fad, now. I’ve passed over quite a few books in the city library, lately, that seemed to take on the idea of amnesia in the context of mystery and thriller works. It always feels like a construct of a writer, not a character, to me, in these Thrilling Tales of Mystery and Thrills that will certainly soon be a movie in a theatre near you.

The second thing that grates me is the way sociopaths are being presented in fiction of crime and mystery and pedestrian thrillers. It is something of a fad, again. And, how convenient that the sociopath that is invented on the page is just so evil that they can do such terrible things as this. It feels convenient that a sociopath would be just so, for the plot. Most sociopaths aren’t any more criminal than anyone else. If one did a sociopath test in literature, the ratio of sociopathic people who commit awful, violent crimes would be far greater in books than in society. Also, it’s always a bit of a cop out, to me. It creates an easy answer as to why someone does a horrible thing. It diminishes the elaborate, horrible things that non-sociopaths do, because it lets us just declare them broken with a psychological diagnosis from the safety of our unqualified armchairs.

So, I read it. It was a fast, simple, pedestrian book likely intended for a huge audience that loves easy answers to complex problems, and to watch snarky British people snark at each other in a big, fancy house in the forest. I didn’t care for it, but there was nothing necessarily wrong with it that isn’t also a bit daffy in the zeitgeist of that genre.

Categories: Book Reviews

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