The Forest of Hands and Teeth

Just when you're convinced that the YA market has been flooded with vampires and fairies, something really interesting comes along... specifically, comes lumbering along looking for brains. The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan is the first in a postapocalyptic series where flesh-eating zombies have overrun the world.

Mary lives in a fenced-in town in what was formerly the Appalachian region of the United States of America, and the residents believe it might be the last hold-out against the zombies (known as the Unconsecrated). The town is overseen by the Sisterhood and the Sisters ensure for the well-being of the people while the Guardians (men only, btw) stand watch over the fences and, God-forbid, alert the town if there is ever a breach in the fortifications and the Unconsecrated enter. The fence is the most important thing in the world -- for it is the only thing that stands between a conscious, God-fearing individual and the damning fate that is an Unconsecrated's "existence." Unconsecrated never cease in their search for human flesh, even as their own flesh decays and rots from their bones, and one who was once a mother, father, brother, or wife... well, as soon as they turn, that former association and distinction no longer matters.

Everyone in the village seems to accept the lives that they have been given, because there's not really much to tempt them to dream of better things, but Mary wants more. She wants to see the ocean, this mythical body of water that Mary's mother would tell her stories about when she was a child. It's not like anyone has ever seen it -- people have been born and have died within the village walls for generations now and this "ocean" is dismissed as a myth, to the point where Mary seems to be the only one to think of it at all. There is only the Forest of Hands and Teeth outside the fence, and the death and damnation that comes with a bite from the Unconsecrated. Meanwhile, the sole thing within the village that Mary *does* seem to want is Travis -- but it appears as though Travis will marry her friend, Cassandra. Mary's only chance for marriage, if she's realistic about things, appears to be Travis's brother, Harry. It's not that there's anything wrong with Harry. He obviously likes her, as he's often watching her, but he's not Travis. Reconciling herself to this is difficult, but on the day that Harry comes to ask if Mary will go with him to the dance that starts the beginning of the official courtship festivities, tragedy strikes. Mary's mother, grieving the loss of her husband to the Unconsecrated some time ago, got too close to the fence and was bitten. Mary's mother is taken to the Sisters and now everyone must wait to see if Mary's mother will turn. When it's obvious she will, the Sisters (and, frankly, everyone else) hopes that Mary's mother will choose death rather than surrender her chance at salvation by turning (an odd twist now on what constitutes a mortal sin, really), but no... mom is released in to the forest and Mary is devastated. Believing that she could continue to live with her brother and his wife, Mary is further stricken to learn that he will not have her in his home and that since Harry has not asked for her (for he did not alert Mary's brother to the whole asking Mary to the dance thing), Mary is sent to join the Sisterhood.

Within the walls of the Sisterhood, Mary embarks upon a life that would be mind-numbing if Mary did as she was told, but instead, Mary continues to quietly rebel and sneak about (but not in a fun way, lest you think this story is in any way light). Indeed, she has to do this quietly, as she's forbidden to speak. The sneaking around thing comes in handy when her beloved Travis is brought in after an incident while he was on guard and he needs to be nursed back to health -- and Mary happens to be on hand. Mary tends to him night and day (or every chance the sisters give her) and, unsurprisingly, their quiet and strange relationship deepens, constantly shadowed by a number of factors that all add up to the painful truth -- Mary cannot hope to truly be with Travis without their destroying Cassandra and Harry. But before you get concerned that this book is just like every YA out there, obsessed with the romantic entanglements, I would like to point out the romance is an important plot point, and yet this isn't anything whatsoever like your standard YA romance (minus the teenage longing in the face of terrible odds). Travis isn't the only person that the Sisters bring in to their sanctuary -- Mary spies a stranger, which is utterly impossible... because this would mean that their village is NOT the only village still standing and there are other settlements, full of other people, fighting against the Unconsecrated. Mary's life grows more and more complicated until the inevitable happens: the Unconsecrated breach the wall. Bloody, action-packed, and horrifying, the village's fall involves death and destruction on an epic scale. Mary manages to escape with a handful of others (and just who these companions are is related to a crucial plot point that I won't give away) through a secret corridor of fenced-in protection from the Unconsecrated that was used by the Guardians, but their little survival party has an incredibly twisted dynamic as they flee the only home they've ever known, uncertain if they should return or forge on with the slim hope of encountering other villages or, just maybe, the mythical "ocean."

As I've already indicated, The Forest of Hands and Teeth is not your average YA novel in many ways. To begin with, zombies aren't sexy. Vampires, werewolves, fairies, mermaids, angels, demons, ghosts, dragons, whatever... you can make each and every one of those sexy and accessible for teens, but try as you might, I just don't think that a classic zombie can be sexy. (I'm sure someone has tried, but I don't think I want to read that story.) So there goes the whole angle of a girl who (a) falls in love with a paranormal creature or (b) is a paranormal creature and falls for someone outside her realm of "acceptable" choices that are part of her particular paranormal sect. Instead, we have the paranormal element being a real honest-to-goodness threat and our storyline is set in the midst of this terror and chaos. I mentioned a love story and teenage longing -- oh boy is there longing -- but be warned now: most of it is implied angst or one-sided. We get a lot of Mary's perspective on everything, so we know that she's in love with Travis and she feels bad about Harry being in love with her when she wants his brother, but this isn't a story where we'll have steamy scenes or deep conversations in popular YA style. This could be disappointing for some readers who need romance in their stories, but it's also somewhat refreshing to get a different angle, something that isn't simply a PG-13 version of a bodice-ripper. You might be driven mad by all that remains unsaid, but it's definitely different.

The overall tone of the story is incredibly bleak, but again, I found this to be a really interesting choice for a YA novel in today's market. I simply haven't come across anything like it. Even things like Hunger Games, which has the same realistic struggle elements to it, at least makes the characters more open and accessible. Here, the reader is isolated with Mary and there is no real relief in the form of a connection that isn't otherwise so complicated that it's impossible to say anything. There's a lot of time where people aren't talking and, indeed, the Most Frustrating Thing Ever in this book is the fact that no one can bring themselves to say what they feel for fear of disturbing the established order. It's almost British in the total lack of honest communication. It's a clear choice on the part of the author to do this, but it can prove to be somewhat taxing as you move along.

That said, I definitely recommend The Forest of Hands and Teeth for anyone who's a bit fed up with the current YA scene and needs something different. Its appeal is hardly limited to YA fans, though, as it doesn't really feel like YA, except for the teenage angst and longing. Carrie Ryan may not have been able to make zombies sexy, but she sure as heck created a fascinating and compelling world that will have you wondering until the end at what lies in store, even if you want to smack most everyone upside the head along the way. This is the first in a series, but it stands on its own quite capably. Even if you tear through this book, it will leave you thinking about it for weeks. You may not like Mary and you may be frustrated with her world, but it's impossible to forget either of them. I haven't yet read the other ones in this series, but I've already bought them and tucked them away for a rainy day when I can sit on the couch, bar the door in case of zombie attack, and settle down with a book that I know will be twisted, emotionally wrenching, and thoroughly riveting.

1 comment:

Emma said...

I loved how unique a zombie story this was. even though i really liked this book, I just couldn't get over how selfish Mary was. for alot of the time I even found myself rooting for the zombies to get her. your thoughts?