Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Forest of Hands and Teeth

The Forest of Hands and Teeth
Written by: Carrie Ryan
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Delacorte Books
Language: English
March 2009, $16.99
Genre: Fiction/Urban Fantasy/Young Adult

In Mary's world there are simple truths. The Sisterhood always knows best. The Guardians will protect and serve. The Unconsecrated will never relent. And you must always mind the fence that surrounds the village; the fence that protects the village from the Forest of Hands and Teeth. But, slowly, Mary’s truths are failing her. She’s learning things she never wanted to know about the Sisterhood and its secrets, and the Guardians and their power, and about the Unconsecrated and their relentlessness. When the fence is breached and her world is thrown into chaos, she must choose between her village and her future—between the one she loves and the one who loves her. And she must face the truth about the Forest of Hands and Teeth. Could there be life outside a world surrounded in so much death?


I love zombies. Love to kill him in games like Resident Evil, love to watch them ala Shaun of the Dead and anything from George Romero and I love to read about them. Why? Because they are more than just the undead. They are metaphors for our society, of consumerism and what it is like to be one of the undead, not really living but just shuffling on. They are about faith, and death and a dystopian look on ‘what if’. They can be funny, thought provoking, scary and sad.

I think it started with Michael Jackson’s Thriller (yep I still know a good portion of the dance). I had always been drawn to the macabre, sneaking in to watch Nightmare on Elm Street with my babysitter who swore not to tell my parents but warned me that I would have nightmares (ooh my poor poor Johnny Depp. I was terrified of my bed for a good 48 hours). I loved to be scared, still do. It’s why I tend to be one of the few women that would rather go see a horror film than a chick flick. Blood and guts that is me and it should be a shock to no one. *smirk* I watch them all, the slasher flicks, the old Hammer films or Dario Argento’s pieces. I get annoyed at recent fares, but still netflix them or watch the abysmal yet funny Syfy channel flicks on Saturday nights. I long for drinking parties while watching Megashark vs Giant Octopus or the hope that someone will finally give me a good ghost story.

But there is something about zombies. They’re coming to get you Barbara. Yep, scared me and I loved it. George Romero had the flesh eating shambling type that had me preparing my zombie apocalypse plan even then. But he also made a sharp commentary on the breakdown of the American dream and society in general masquerading as a horror film. Pure genius as far as I am concerned. It is not so much about being eaten by a zombie, though admittedly that would suck. I think it’s about having your life, your soul, all that you are taken away from you. Maybe to another a person who controls you or maybe just becoming a mindless crawling thing. And let’s not forget our fear of death or the fear that our quest for immortality could go just a bit wrong.

We’ve had a lot of pop culturey goodness that feature the undead from Planet Terror to 28 Days Later, The Zombie Survival Guide, Zombie Haiku and The Walking Dead series. I have taken part in a few zombie walks, imagined how well I would do if the Zombie Apocalypse happened and devour anything zombie related.

However, that isn’t why I picked up this book. I picked it up because I loved the title. Then the back had me hooked. Zombies set in a Village sort of setting. Count me in. And I was hooked by the first paragraph. Smitten actually and four hours later I finally put in down.

It has been seven generations after the Return, generations after the Unconsecrated destroyed life as we knew it. For Mary who lives in an isolated village along the Forest of Hands and Teeth it has been a lonely, suffocating and frustrating life. Rules are all Mary has ever known. Commitment, duty, these are what the Village lives by. Mary wants more. Her mother has long told her stories of the ocean, of a life beyond the fences where maybe, just maybe there is finally freedom. But to leave means defying the Sisterhood, her family and friends and entering the forest which is filled with the Unconsecrated.

When events unfold Mary finds she finally has to make those choices she has never had the courage to make. Choices about love, about friendship, about the only life she has ever known and about survival. Are they the right choices? Is there anything left outside of The Forest of Hands and Teeth?

A Brief Excerpt: My mother used to tell me about the ocean. She said there was a place where there was nothing but water as far as you could see and that it was always moving, rushing toward you and then away. She once showed me a picture that she said was my great-great-great-grandmother standing in the ocean as a child. It has been years since, and the picture was lost to fire long ago, but I remember it, faded and worn. A little girl surrounded by nothingness.

In my mother's stories, passed down from her many-greats-grandmother, the ocean sounded like the wind through the trees and men used to ride the water. Once, when I was older and our village was suffering through a drought, I asked my mother why, if so much water existed, were there years when our own streams ran almost dry? She told me that the ocean was not for drinking--that the water was filled with salt.
That is when I stopped believing her about the ocean. How could there be so much salt in the universe and how could God allow so much water to become useless?

But there are times when I stand at the edge of the Forest of Hands and Teeth and look out at the wilderness that stretches on forever and wonder what it would be like if it were all water. I close my eyes and listen to the wind in the trees and imagine a world of nothing but water closing over my head.

It would be a world without the Unconsecrated, a world without the Forest of Hands and Teeth.

Often, my mother stands next to me holding her hand up over her eyes to block the sun and looking out past the fences and into the trees and brush, waiting to see if her husband will come home to her.

She is the only one who believes that he has not turned--that he might come home the same man he was when he left. I gave up on my father months ago and buried the pain of losing him as deeply as possible so that I could continue with my daily life. Now I sometimes fear coming to the edge of the Forest and looking past the fence. I am afraid I will see him there with the others: tattered clothes, sagging skin, the horrible pleading moan and the fingers scraped raw from pulling at the metal fences.

That no one has seen him gives my mother hope. At night she prays to God that he has found some sort of enclave similar to our village. That somewhere in the dense Forest he has found safety. But no one else has any hope. The Sisters tell us that ours is the only village left in the world.

My brother Jed has taken to volunteering extra shifts for the Guardian patrols that monitor the fence line. I know that, like me, he thinks our father is lost to the Unconsecrated and that he hopes to find him during the patrol of the perimeter and kill him before our mother sees what her husband has become.

People in our village have gone mad from seeing their loved ones as Unconsecrated. It was a woman--a mother--horrified at the sight of her son infected during a patrol, who set herself on fire and burned half of our town. That was the fire that destroyed my family's heirlooms when I was a child, that obliterated our only ties to who we were as a people before the Return, though most were so corroded by then that they left only wisps of memories.

Jed and I watch our mother closely now and we never allow her to approach the fence line unaccompanied. At times Jed's wife Beth used to join us on these vigils until she was sent to bed rest with her first child. Now it is just us…

Things I loved: Oh how I loved this book. In fact it is one of the best books I have read this year. It isn’t just the zombie factor or the fact that the mini movie in my head with streaks of red out of the corner of your eye completely captivated me as I read it. I was Mary. I wanted to know the secrets. I wanted to know what was beyond the fence. I felt trapped as Mary did, I questioned when she did and loved and lost. The fact that this once began as part of the Nanowrimo challenge in 2006 and that publishers took a chance with it makes me love it even more.

It is a beautifully written book and the prose completely had me hanging on every word. The internal dialogue is amazing with Mary as the core of this story. This is her life, through her eyes. It is an honest and strong voice. She is not without her faults. She can be brave and selfish, curious and loving, hateful and scared. She is a flawed creature, but she is a real one. More alive than anyone else in the novel, she wants what she cannot have. She dreams of freedom and of a life where she can be herself, where she can write her own story. Her journey is not without its own cost and in some of her choices you want to hate her. She may be selfish, but despite the consequences of her actions I cannot hate her. Her story is far more complex than it first appears and hit me on many different levels. As she struggles to find herself in world that can be so cruel and callous, I struggled with her. She is a force all her own, a fighter and a survivor. She pushes everyone else to their limits forces them to make touch decisions. She wonders if it is all worth fighting for? And she loves…oh how she loves…flawed and deep and beautiful in its own way.

A friend of mine said that the other characters seem one offs because Mary is so strong in her voice. In a way, yes. They are characterized only by how Mary seems them and interacts with them, how she loves and hates them and only by what she sees and hears and feels. Such is the way with first personal narration, but it is so much more engaging for me this way. Her voice and her story is more realistic because of this.

* I loved the setting. I know I may be one of the few people who actually loved M. Night’s The Village, but this was the Village with zombies, albeit the Sisterhood is far scarier than the Elders could ever dream to be. This is the world after the Zombie Apocalypse is over, a life after World War Z where the Unconsecrated still roam. It is a century later where nature has begun to take over the once carefully constructed fences, where the Sisterhood has taken advantage of their knowledge of the Return and uses it to rule, and where the shotguns have long run out of ammo. It is a simple life, a life without shopping malls and ipods, where an old winery is a cathedral and every day is a blessing. Even safe within the fence, you risk becoming Unconsecrated, not due to a bite, but because you are bound to rules and a life that you don’t want. You have survived the Return, but at what cost? And how, how did so much become lost? Are there still aging skyscrapers full of wildlife and trapped Unconsecrated? Are there more survivors? Is there still something left of the technology we have all grown so used to? And how can a single image of the ocean be something that pushes you forward. This is Mary’s Shell Beach ala Dark City.

* There is so much that I don’t know. It’s an odd thing wanting all the answers, but grateful that I don’t know them at the same time. Would I be satisfied with those answers? How did the Sisterhood start? Were they once part of the government or science communities who knew that the Return would come, prepared for it? What did they do to Gabrielle? What else was in the bottom of the winery? The Sisterhood is such a self serving group. True, they are allowing humanity to survive, but what else is out there? Did they enjoy being rulers of their own mini kingdoms even when they knew there might still be more out there? Did they factor in that the fences may be breached one day? Would they have left the Villagers? What other secrets did they keep? They were such an interesting part of the book and now that I know that there will be more books I want to know more.

Things I didn't love so much: I don’t really have anything to gripe on other than it ended far too quickly than I wanted to. That I was left too early in the morning wondering why there aren’t more books like that out there? That I didn’t have enough answers? That this would make a great film and I can already see the flashes of red vest, but too scared that they will ruin it and turn it into a Twilight-esque mess.

Buy or Borrow: Buy. Buy. Buy. Even if Zombies aren’t necessarily your thing, read it, tell me what you think. Let’s discuss. Just like George Romero’s Dead films were about more than the undead, so is Ryan’s novel. It is more about the Unconsecrated and survival. Haven’t we all felt a bit trapped by our hometowns, of societal and family expectations and wanting to know if there is something more out there, to live a life that is our own instead of someone else’s? And of course if you love zombies, whoo hoo this is for you as well.

Part of: a Series. The Dead Tossed Waves, a sequel will be out in 2010. One more is expected to be penned after that.

Also Recommended: World War Z by Max Brooks, Monster Island by David Wellington, The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman and Generation Dead by Daniel Waters.

4 out of 4 happy bibliosnark bookmarks

Have your own review? Let me know and I will post it.


Phantom of Pulp said...

Beautifully written review of a beautiful book. Honestly, I'm zombied out, but this fine story brought great poetry to the subject, and had a very sad, truthful subtext.

Allie said...

I read this when it came out back in January and I fell in love. The main character is really what drives this story. her voice is simply powerful and stays with you.
Excellent review.

Dannie said...

Agreed. Fantastic book.

Lauren {Geeb} said...

This book is going on the top of my To Be Read pile!!! My husband and I love the zombie stuff and this looks like a outside the box story of the zombie subject. I am looking forward to reading it!

Also, I have nominated you for the Honest Scrap blog award! The details are in my blog!

The Book Whisperer said...

Yippeee, this book sounds great. I ordered it last week and hopefully it will arrive this week. Fantastic review!

Kari said...

I absolutely agree 100% with your review. I loved this book. I was hooked almost immediately. I picked it up because I totally judge books by their covers and titles and after reading the jacket thought it reminded me of The Village (which I also loved). I cannot wait to read The Dead-Tossed Waves! I think we'll get to learn more of the Sisterhood, but even if we don't I JUST CAN'T WAIT!