Mary’s village is surrounded by tall fences to keep out the ‘Unconsecrated’. It is the only world she has ever known, but she remembers her mother’s stories of the world before the return – tales of tall buildings, and a vast expanse of water: the ocean. Unlike her religious and rule-driven fellow villagers, Mary dreams of the outside. After discovering a secret captor, a mysterious girl in red who could only be from outside, Mary’s curiosity and longing are amplified.
The mood of The Forest of Hands and Teeth begins stifled and gothic, like M Night Shyamalan’s The Village, or even Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (and the film version with Winona Ryder). The world of the novel is adequate, but not rich. For the novel’s duration, there is one main focus, one drive for the main character, and despite the inclusion of a love triangle and a bit of tame lust/desire, the mainly singular drive of the book means it lacks complexity. The singular drive does mean that it’s reasonably pacy – the reader is interested enough to see if it will pan out for Mary – but Mary’s need also becomes repetitive.
The book is also fraught with small, clunky inconsistencies, and gaps – which seem the result of too-fast or lazy writing and/or editing – and which interfere with the enjoyment of the novel (perhaps rushed out to take advantage of the bit-lit phenomenon). In one part, the Unconsecrated have just attacked someone viciously, and Mary runs to the victim and talks to them for five minutes as they suffer. The Unconsecrated are conveniently consumed by the fire that burns behind them (or something). Also, if the people are so desired by the Unconsecrated, why do they never finish someone off? It always seems to just be a bite, and then the person will ‘turn’. But if they desire their flesh, what would stop them? Some parts like this have explanations thrown in later, but for a logical reader, the flow has already been interrupted, and unexplained elements don’t act to create mystery or suspense.
Overall, I found The Forest of Hands and Teeth a rather unstimulating and unrewarding read, which was a shame, because a simple idea like this – a young woman amongst the last of humanity struggling for survival (and wondering if they are indeed the last) – really has a lot of potential.