Background: I first heard about The Forest of Hands and Teeth in a Waiting on Wednesday post at Presenting Lenore. Lenore said: "... it's a post-apocolyptic love story set in the wake of a zombie-creating global virus. And really, aren't those the best kind of love stories?" And I was hooked. I've seen other positive reviews since then (listed below), and I was thrilled when a copy turned up on my doorstep this week (thanks, Random House!). It's due out on Tuesday, so dystopia, zombie, and romance fans can consider this review your advance warning to set aside some time to read this book next week. I think it has the potential to be a big hit.
Review: Carrie Ryan's The Forest of Hands and Teeth is the story of a teenage girl struggling to fulfill her dreams, despite living in a perilous, tightly constricted, post-apocalyptic society. Mary lives in a small village, surrounded by fences on all sides. The fences are there to keep out the "Unconsecrated", people who have died after being infected from a bite, and have now "Returned" as the walking dead. The Unconsecrated crave human flesh, and are constantly trying to gain access to the villagers. They are a forest of greedy hands and lethal teeth.
The Sisters who control the village claim that the villagers are the only humans left in the world. It is every girl's duty to marry and reproduce, and keep humanity alive. The society's rituals are essential to survival. But Mary dreams of a life with Travis, a boy she can't have. To leave the village would mean a fate literally worse than death. Yet Mary dreams of one day seeing the ocean.
This book had me hooked from the very first paragraph:
"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." (Page 1)
The Forest of Hands and Teeth is compelling on multiple levels. The setting is brooding and three-dimensional. You feel as trapped as Mary is in the village. You can practically hear the zombies wailing in the background. The plot had me on the edge of my seat, reading until 1:00 in the morning to finish, because I couldn't possibly put the book down. I gasped aloud at one perilous moment. There's also the whole post-apocalyptic, "how did this happen?", "how did so much get lost?" aspect to the book. Both Mary and Travis ache to know if there's still a larger world out there or not. Mary struggles with whether or not she can believe in God, in the presence of everything that's happened to the world. And she wonders sometimes if the struggle against the zombies, the struggle to maintain humanity, is worthwhile. As if all of that weren't enough, there's a multi-layered love story, complete with a consuming passion and a girl torn between two brothers.
Mary is a fully developed character -- determined, yet romantic; suffering inside, yet strong. Here are a couple of excerpts, to give you a feel for Mary's personality:
"I can't do anything but nod and try to keep my cheeks from catching fire from all the emotions warring inside me. It takes everything I have to clasp my hands placidly in front of my stomach." (Page 47)
"As a child I dreamed of love and sunlight and a world beyond the Forest. I dreamed of the ocean, of a place untouched by the Return.
And suddenly I wonder what right we have to believe our childhood dreams will come true. My body aches with this realization. With this truth. It is as if I have cut something important away from myself. The loss is almost overwhelming. Almost enough to make me give up." (Page 105)
I didn't get as deep an understanding of the other characters, but that may have been inevitable, given the first person narration and the rapid pace at which I was reading. I would have liked to see Mary's brother's character fleshed out a bit more. But that's my only complaint about the book, and it's a very minor one.
Overall, I thought that The Forest of Hands and Teeth was both fascinating and beautifully written. Even if you don't think that a zombie book sounds like quite your thing, I would still recommend giving it a look. Think of it, instead, as a brooding love story set against a dangerous backdrop, and leave it at that. Of course, if you are a fan of zombie stories, then you won't want to miss this one. The Forest of Hands and Teeth is like what might have happened afterwards, if the zombies had won in World War Z. (As Liz Burns said: "All you who read and loved World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War don't have to know anything else; you will love this book".)
I would also try The Forest of Hands and Teeth as a follow-on book for fans of Twilight. The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a bit darker, and is certainly more eloquently written, than Twilight. It also features a much more self-reliant main character. But both books feature a "the world is well lost for love" perspective (and, of course, a horror story backdrop).
Although it's early in the year, I think that The Forest of Hands and Teeth is going to stand out as one my favorite reads of 2009. Highly recommended for teens and adults.
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: March 10, 2009
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: A Chair, A Fireplace and A Tea Cozy, Rebecca's Book Blog, BookEnvy, Library Ninja, In Search of Giants, Karin's Book Nook. See also the book trailer at Omnivoracious
Author Interviews: Saundra Mitchell (she's also giving away a signed copy of the book!), Samantha Elliott, Jen Hayley, Fumbling with Fiction
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.