Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Wood for the Trees

So, I said I was going to compare these two books with similar titles and themes - In the Woods by Tana French and The Woods by Harlan Coben.

Even the covers are vaguely similar, in design if not in colour. Both feature lots of trees, which is hardly a surprise, but the French one has the more menacing looking cover - dark green with gloomy, forbidding trees. The Coben cover is pale blue with light shining through the trees, silhouetting a figure.

I'd have to say that the covers illustrate the books pretty well, with the French one being the darker of the two. The protagonist is Rob Ryan, a detective in the Dublin police, and a very troubled man. He was in the eponymous woods twenty years before when two of his friends disappeared without trace. To say it has left him scarred would be a bit of an understatement. When the body of a child is found on an archeological dig next to the woods, he is forced to look back into the past and the day his friends went missing. He apparently remembers nothing at all of that day, but as the case progresses, slowly memories start to resurface. It's a spooky and chilling book and the main characters, Ryan and his partner Cassie, are complex and interesting. This is no run of the mill thriller and it kept me guessing right to the end.

The Coben book, for all its similarities of title and subject is a very different kettle of fish. Here we are in the US, mostly New Jersey and the protagonist is a prosecutor, Paul Copeland. Cope, as he is known, is a single dad, bringing up his daughter after the death of his wife from cancer. Twenty years before, his sister disappeared from the woods surrounding a summer camp where their father was employed and where Cope worked as a camp counsellor. Two teenagers' bodies were found in the woods but Cope's sister and another boy were never found. Several years later a serial killer was convicted of similar killings and jailed, but he always denied those at the summer camp. One day, Cope gets a call from NYPD about a body they've found with clipping about him in his pockets. Cope is convinced that it's Gil Perez, the boy who disappeared with his sister all those years before. But is it really Gil, and if it is, why has he been killed now? Does this all link back to that night in the woods or is there another reason this is all being dragged up again, just as Cope is trying to prosecute the son of a local bigwig for rape. Again this is a complex and well-structured book. It's very slick and American - just what you expect from Harlan Coben - and the character of Cope is a bit too clean cut for my tastes, but it's still a good book.

And the verdict?

Well, I have to say that I preferred the Tana French book. I did like the Harlan Coben but it didn't surprise me. It did exactly what it said on the tin - and that after all is what Harlan Coben is all about. He's a good writer and his plots are plausable and suitably complex. You know what to expect with a Harlan Coben book and he invariable delivers. In the Woods however, is Tana French's first novel and it really surprised me. I was expecting a competent mystery with good characters (well, that's the very minimum I expect of any crime novel - not that I always get it!), but this one got right under the skin of Rob Ryan and it totally hooked me. I read it in a weekend and could barely put it down. Given my current state of ennui with the crime genre it was a fantastic boost to find this. I hope she's writing another one.

After all that wandering though the gloomy woods I had a bit of a break from crime and I read The Disappearing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell. This was a shortish novel about a woman locked up in an institution for almost her whole life, through no fault of her own . I'd say it was a slight book - enjoyable but not memorable. It had vague feeling of Muriel Spark to it, and I couldn't help but think how much more powerful it would have been if Spark had actually written it.

Moving on I then read The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory. This was a bit on the light, romantic side of historical fiction for my taste but enjoyable nonetheless - a good story helps of course and Jane Boleyn, Katherine Howard and Anne of Cleves made an interesting triumvirite of narrators. I think Gregory herself would admit to a fair degree of prosaic licence as to characterisation as it seems not a lot is known about Old Henry's 4th and 5th wives respectively, though it seems generally agreed that Ann Boleyn's sister-in-law was a real piece of work. By far the most interesting thing about the book was how it showed these women's lives and how constrained they were by familial duty and how dependant they were on a husband for status, reputation and security. It made me very glad to be a 20th century girl.

Tonight is the Sara Paretsky event at West Bromwich Town Hall, which I am looking forward to. I'll be taking my camera so hopefully there will be pics later in the week.

1 comment:

David said...

Yes, Tana French is following up “In the Woods” with “The Likeness,” which is due out in the U.S. in July and the U.K. in August. The narrator this time is Cassie, who in the first book was the detective partner of Rob, that book’s narrator. Expect a different narrative voice, but the same emphasis on character, surprise, and fine writing. You’re not alone in liking “In the Woods”: when this was published (it’s now out in 22 languages), it was described by The London Times as a “terrific debut” in which “French’s psychological insights combine grippingly with the clammy atmosphere that surrounds the lethal woods,” while BBC Radio called the book “stunning” and said “the literary world is abuzz with praise for a new talent.” “In the Woods” has been shortlisted for awards at ceremonies to be held by the Irish Book Awards on April 24, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize on April 25, the Edgars on May 1, and the Strand Critics Award on July 9. The editors at ranked it in the top three of all mysteries (and No. 13 among all books of every category) published in 2007. In the U.K. last year, “In the Woods” won the IVCA Clarion Award for Best Fiction Book of 2007. More than just a good read, and “The Likeness” is rumoured to be at least as good!