The Woman in the Wood…
Fifteen-year-old twins Maisy and Duncan have always had each other. Until that fateful day in the wood…
1960: Maisy and Duncan Mitcham are woken one night to find their mother is being committed to an insane asylum. Soon after, their father packs them off to ‘Nightingales’, their grandmother’s country house in the New Forest. Cold and distant, she leaves them to their own devices to explore; a freedom they have never experienced before and which they love. That is, until the day Duncan doesn’t come home from the woods.
When the bodies of other young boys are discovered in the surrounding area the police appear to give up hope of finding Duncan alive and with Grandmother Mitcham showing little concern, it falls to Maisy to discover the truth. And she knows just where to start. The woman who lives alone in the woods. A woman called Grace Deville…
The Woman in the Wood is the first novel by Lesley Pearse that I have read. I’ve certainly seen her novels in stores and libraries, and her popularity is indicated by the mere fact that her novels have sold more than 10 million copies world wide. I’m not sure what rock I’ve been living under, but rest assured, I have emerged, I have read my first Lesley Pearse, and I am hooked.
What an amazing author she is! The way she builds a story, laying all the of foundations, bit by bit, increasing the tension, mystery, emotion, all of these threads waving about and then weaving themselves together with precision. Combined with excellent character development, she really is a master story teller and her popularity comes as no great surprise to me at all.
The Woman in the Wood begins when 15 year old twins, Maisy and Duncan Mitcham, are sent to live with their grandmother in the country. Their mother has been committed to an asylum with very little explanation offered as to why by their father, who is unemotional with them and keeps them very much at arms length. Despite their grandmother being rather cold towards them, their father semi-abandoning them, and the uncertainty about their mother’s condition, the two settle in quite well and begin to view this new country life they’ve been given as a second chance, a new beginning. Everything is rather cosy and nice, and the story slips along in this fashion for a little while as we get to see Maisy and Duncan stretch their wings a little and get to know themselves as well as new people. With the added local legend of ‘the woman in the wood’, Grace Deville, a woman who lives alone in the woods and shuns society, there is a general sense of foreboding hanging about the edges, a distinct Hansel and Gretal feel about the story as it unfolds in its quaint way.
Then Duncan goes missing and the story spins on its tail for a little bit and when it settles, nothing is as you predicted. It morphs into a coming of age story, focused on Maisy for a period of time, and I particularly liked this unexpected turn. The 1960s was such a defining period for women, culture, and social change, and Lesley narrows the focus onto this through the eyes of Maisy, a seventeen year old girl who is somewhat lost and grappling with her options for the future. Not only in terms of a job or career and where she wants to live, but who she actually is, particularly if she ends up having to live her life without ever seeing her twin brother again.
From coming of age we move into mystery and then very quickly into more of a crime/thriller sort of feel, and it’s from this point that the novel descends into a much darker realm, one that has only previously been alluded to. From the beginning to about half way through the novel, we were experiencing the story through Maisy’s eyes, but from here on in, Lesley mixes that up a bit and it works very well. I really liked how the genre flexed throughout, I felt it made for a very interesting and unpredictable story. The time period as well, early 1960s, made for a great setting. There was this general feeling that what was happening should not be happening because life was ‘safe’ back then. It really added to the authenticity of the events, and the way Lesley drew in the left over depravity of the war was particlarly insightful. WWII was still a recent event, only over 15 years previous, so there was still a lot of emotional baggage and, something I had not given much thought to previously, a criminal element still outstanding. People who had gotten away with crimes under the guise of war and had then emerged reinvented, assimilating themselves into society yet remaining unchanged at their core. Very thought provoking content.
It is essential to mention that there are scenes within this novel, inferences and recollections as well as actual events unfolding, that will be disturbing for some readers. A story about teenage boys going missing and a reviewer (me) discussing the dark path the story takes, this is your 2 + 2 = 4 warning. I feel Lesley handled these parts of the story with skill and a great deal of empathy, but she was also brutally honest and I am a parent as well as a reader and she gave me reason to flinch and pause on more than one occasion. I will say though, that within the context of the story, what she included was essential and I don’t think she overdid any descriptions in any way at all. I just wanted to point out that if you are sensitive to reading about child abuse, be cautious.
The best part of this novel was the way Lesley structured the story to demonstrate the ripple effects of crime. So many crime stories just tend to finish and you never really get to see what happens next. How does the victim cope post crime? How do they move forward with all of the mental and physical scarring they now bear? What effect does the events have on the family of the person who perpetuated the crime? How does the family of the victim move forward in a supportive manner? How does a small community react? All of these questions and more are addressed in The Woman in the Wood. And this is what I mean by an evolving story. It just kept on flexing, unravelling and then knitting itself back together in a new way. It was brilliant, I was hard pressed to put the novel aside despite deep tiredness and a very busy working week. And the wrap up was excellent, no thread left dangling, everything was sorted in the most satisfactory way yet also remaining realistic and authentic.
I am most impressed with this novel and Lesley Pearse as an author. I will definitely be looking out for more of her work and won’t hesitate to recommend her as an author to follow.
Thanks is extended to Penguin Random House Australia for providing me with a copy of The Woman in the Wood for review. The Woman in the Wood is released July 3, 2017.