Review: In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

Margot McGovern reviews Ruth Ware’s smart and chilling debut thriller, In a Dark, Dark Wood (Harvill Secker, 2015).

A good thriller is hard to find. Too often they rely on cheap tricks and the ending falls flat. Many pitch the drama too high and it becomes increasingly difficult for the reader to suspend their disbelief, or else they’re entirely predictable. But when they’re good—when the writing is sharp and clean, the tension rising steadily and the plot twisting just enough to keep what’s coming from view—thrillers are hard to beat.

I’ll admit I approached In a Dark, Dark Wood with one eyebrow raised. The tagline, ‘someone’s getting married; someone’s getting murdered’ wasn’t promising. But it had the kind of premise I can’t resist: A group of old school friends reunite for a hen weekend at a remote country house deep in the woods. But what should be a fun few days of dirty games and drinking takes a turn for the sinister when secrets from the past begin to surface. Basically, it sounded like The Bachelor meets The Secret History, a.k.a. INCREDIBLE FUN. I poured myself a good measure of whisky and settled in.

Narrator Nora isn’t keen on the hen weekend from the start. As a writer she’s intensely private and likes having her own space.

It’s always my instinct to keep my cards close to my chest, I don’t know why. I dislike giving people, even friends, the smallest hold over me. I’ve always been a private person, and that tendency has grown since I started to live alone and work alone. 

The idea of spending a whole weekend with people she either hasn’t seen in a decade or doesn’t know at all is deeply unappealing. Honestly, she’s not really sure why she’s invited. While she and the bride-to-be, Clare, were once best friends, they haven’t seen each other since school. She doesn’t even know whom Clare is marrying. But maid of honour, Flo, is insistent Clare wants her there, and maybe it would be good to reconnect after all these years?

However, the house is far more remote than Nora realises, and a far cry from the charming cottage she imagined:

What actually stood in the forest clearing was an extraordinary collection of glass and steel, looking as if it had been thrown down carelessly by a child tired of playing with some very minimalist bricks … In spite of the trees to either side, the place looked painfully exposed, baring its great glass facade to the eyes of the whole valley.

Once the party gets started there’s tequila and pizza and giggly rounds of ‘I Have Never’. But there’s little phone reception and no coffee, and if the snow falls hard they could be trapped for days. It doesn’t take long for tempers to fray and old tensions to rise. And above the fireplace, looming over the proceedings like a bad omen, hangs a shotgun.

When Nora wakes up in hospital on Sunday morning, she can’t remember what happened. But someone is dead and what at first appears to have been an accident begins to look increasingly like murder, and everyone, even Nora, has a motive. In a Dark, Dark Wood is a claustrophobic and chilling read, compelling the reader on with steadily mounting tension.

The narrative is split between ‘before’ and ‘after’ as Nora struggles to piece together what went wrong.

I don’t know if it’s the shock, or what happened after, but things begin to fragment. And the harder I push, the more I’m not sure if I’m remembering what happened, or what I think happened. 

An amnesiac narrator can read as lazy writing, but Ware plays Nora’s unreliability well; not only does Nora not remember what happened, she’s a writer and prone to invention, and the question of whether or not the reader can trust her adds a niggling sense of unease to an already sinister tale.

Ware also has the unsettling atmosphere nailed. Initially I thought: a glass house, really? Will the characters literally throw stones as well? But actually, the house is wonderfully eerie and serves to highlight the themes of exposure and vulnerability that run throughout. Several of the characters have connections to the theatre, and for them the house brings to mind a stage and a long ago high school production of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof:

There was something strangely naked about it, like we were on a stage set, playing our parts to an audience of eyes out there in the wood. 

And as in a play, there is a strong sense from the beginning that there is someone working behind the scenes, directing the drama.

In a Dark, Dark Wood is well-paced and clearly written, with Ware keeping a tight grip on the narrative; every detail is important and deliberately placed. The ending left me a touch incredulous, though it’s masterfully foreshadowed and, for the most part, satisfying.

I haven’t had the best luck with thrillers of late, but In a Dark, Dark Wood is an impressive debut: smart and spooky with just the blackest hint of humour. If you’re looking for a book that will have you turning the pages well after bedtime, In a Dark, Dark Wood should be top of your TBR pile.

Thank you to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

In a dark dark wood cover

In a Dark, Dark Wood is available through Amazon (Kindle), Book Depository and Kobo.

If you enjoyed In a Dark, Dark Wood these titles might also tickle your fancy:

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Dismantled by Jennifer McMahon, available:

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