August 15, 2009

JUNIOR ZOMBIE WEEK: The Forest of Hands and Teeth (Review)


The Forest of Hands
and Teeth

By Carrie Ryan

Delacorte: 2009



5 / 5 zedheads

"What are your dreams worth if you're dead?"

At the heart of The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a taught story about the complex and sometimes dangerous hunger and obsession we have for hope and self-determination in a bleak world we did not choose. Although it's a novel for young adults (14 and up), and its prose therefore consists of short, uncomplicated sentences, it is actually a sophisticated story full of realistic, complex characters. Claustrophobic and suspenseful, the novel squeezes your insides into a tense ball, but you are compelled to read on, only to intensify this tense dread so that when the light and hope and love finally breaks through the darkness of the forest, the bitter sweet relief is all the more fulfilling.

Mary, the protagonist of The Forest of Hands and Teeth, lives in a post-apocalyptic world where the very existence of the ocean and skyscrapers are nothing more than stories and myths. The history of our modern world has been lost to time after the collapse of society following THE RETURN. Although no one knows for sure what caused THE RETURN, the results are undeniable: the dead now walk the earth in a mindless and unceasing hunger for human flesh.

In Mary's village, these creatures are known as THE UNCONSECRATED. They are kept at bay by a series of fences built long ago. The fences separate the village from the Forest of Hands and Teeth, a seemingly endless wooded expanse that is home to the UNCONSECRATED. The fences are currently maintained by The Guardians (the village's male protectors) and The Sisters (a female Christian religious order that is the supreme authority in the village). There are occasional breaches and people become infected, so the villagers live in constant fear and isolation. For innumerable years they have lived this way -- lost to history, believing themselves to be the last of humanity, and unable to believe a living world exists beyond the forest.

Mary comes of marrying age in this bleak world, where marriage is about survival, not love. Where education is about religious dogma and not truth or questions. Where choice is no choice at all. Because Mary is the emotional centre of the novel, Ryan truly makes us feel as Mary does: pushed and pulled by forces beyond her control that keep her from the life she wants (or think she wants) to live. She is haunted by the dream of finding the ocean of which her mother often spoke. As many teens must feel today, especially young girls, Mary is stifled by social obligations and expectations as well as self-doubt and sadness. A sensitive but uneasy love triangle is developed in the story between Mary and her friends while the oppressive presence of the Sisters is continuously felt -- watching.

That is, until a stranger arrives in the village from beyond the fences. She is proof to Mary that a world exists beyond the Forest of Hands and Teeth! A world that may contain such marvels as the ocean. Mary's life is forever changed and a series of terrifying events soon build towards a shocking climax in which she is forced to confront the shambling and clawing and rotten corpses of the forest face-to-face.

What I most loved about Ryan's novel is that the characters are very complicated and human for a work of fiction for teens. There are no easy stereotypes here or easy decisions. Every choice is a dilemma and every character has layers. Mary is both wise and resourceful but at times selfish and dangerously obsessive. You find yourself rooting for her in some scenes and wishing you could shake some sense into her in the next. But this is true of human life, especially human life under duress. We are, as people, nothing if not contradictory. She also develops as a character, but not on a clear path that is easily identifiable from the start. The woman she is at the end of the novel is somehow both always the woman she was yet the woman she never expected to be.

And what of the zombies? THE UNCONSECRATED are a constant and terrifying threat in this book. They are quite literally a horde, a massive sea of undead bodies -- a virus in human skin whose only desire is to invade, infect, consume, and destroy. Ryan writes several memorable and honestly tense descriptions of zombie attacks or near-attacks that kept me reading until late into the night. If the main characters stray too far off their paths and towards the fence, they could become entangled in the broken and mangled hands of the undead. This constant threat creates a narrative claustrophobia that compliments the emotional claustrophobia and angst in Mary's life. Yes, there is teen angst, but it feels so palpably real and justified in author Ryan's deft and careful prose.

I am hesitant to say any more about The Forest of Hands and Teeth since each chapter was a new surprise for me. The novel is as gripping as the hands and teeth implied in the title; it would be a crime to deprive you of the experience by spoiling any more. I'll simply end by saying that The Forest of Hands and Teeth is one of the best and most sincere zombie novels I've ever read. You should immediately go to the nearest bookstore or library and get yourself a copy.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a perfect read for both adults and young adults alike.