Monday 4 January 2016

In a Dark, Dark Wood

Published this summer and whizzing up the best-seller lists in Britain and North America is the first novel by Ruth Ware: In a dark, dark wood. It’s a thriller, but an unusual one in that it’s about people’s personalities and their relationships rather than about a cold-blooded assassin or about how the world will end if the protagonist doesn’t do something impossible.

The protagonist and first-person narrator in this novel is Leonora Shaw. She lives alone in a tiny flat in Hackney, in London. She is one of a group of people who receive an e-mail from someone she doesn’t know called Flo, to come to a hen party before the wedding of Clare who had been Leonora’s best friend in high-school. Leonora walked out of the school when she was 16. Now it’s ten years later and she has not seen Clare at all during that time. She doesn’t know what to do about the e-mail from Flo. She contacts Nina, whom she sees in the list of people who have received the e-mail. She had met Nina at university, and the two of them have kept in touch. They decide to go.

The hen party takes place over a weekend in a modern glass-built house in the middle of a dark, dark wood in the north of England. In the main room of the house, above the fireplace hangs a shotgun. Is this Chekhov’s gun? Yes it is. By the middle of the story, it does go off.

There are six people at the party: Clare, Leonora, Nina, Flo, Melanie, and Tom. Clare is someone who is instantly attractive. She’s beautiful, warm, thoughtful, loyal. Anyone would be pleased to have her as a friend. Leonora is a bit of a recluse, a bit of a whiner, a bit of a wimp, but we come to identify with her and to like her well enough, though we do wonder whether she might be unreliable as a narrator. Nina is six-foot-one and outgoing; she is a surgeon who swears a lot, and smokes roll-ups. Flo is Clare’s current best friend. She would do anything for Clare, and amongst these anythings has been the organization of the hen party. She has a diagnosable borderline personality disorder. To put it more technically she’s a roof job. Then there is Melanie, who is breast-feeding a six-month-old baby. While away from her child at the party, she has to pump and dump. Last there is Tom, who writes for the theatre. He’s not quite a hen, but he is gay. Does this sound like an Agatha Christie story? Are these the suspects?

Unusual in a thriller is that the depictions of Clare, Leonora, Nina, and Flo are sufficiently intricate and engaging that one would be pleased to find them in a literary novel. The tension for readers, which builds in a satisfying way, starts with Leonora wondering why she has been invited to the hen party but not to the wedding. Who's Clare about to marry?  It turns out to be James with whom Leonora was closely involved at high school; they, too, have not seen each other for ten years. The sense grows that the hen party is—as one might expect in a thriller—a set up. But why? For what? For whom? Ruth Ware is good at depicting the relationships among the women, and good too using the interactions among them to build a sense of uneasy foreboding.

It’s brilliant of Ruth Ware to write a thriller in which understanding what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen, occurs through coming to understand the story’s characters in a theory-of-mind kind of way.

Ware, R. (2015). In a dark, dark wood. London: Harvill Secker.

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