Title: The Forest of Hands and Teeth
Author: Carrie Ryan
Genre: Speculative Fiction, Young Adult, Apocalyptic Fiction, Zombies
Publisher: Delacorte Books
Publication Date: March 2009
Hardcover: 320 pages
Stand alone or series: Can be read as a stand alone novel, but a sequel will be released in Spring 2010.
Why did I read this book: I had first heard about this debut novel on Urban Fantasy Land early last year…and once I had read the premise of the book (ZOMBIES), I was hooked. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited for a debut novel before! I pined for months, yearning for an ARC of The Forest of Hands and Teeth — and wouldn’t you know it? By early March, I was able to get a copy…
Summary: (from CarrieRyan.com)
In Mary’s world, there are simple truths.
The Sisterhood always knows best.
The Guardians will protect and serve.
The Unconsecrated will never relent.
And you must always mind the fence that surrounds the village. The fence that protects the village from the Forest of Hands and Teeth.
But slowly, Mary’s truths are failing her. She’s learning things she never wanted to know about the Sisterhood and its secrets, and the Guardians and their power. And, when the fence is breached and her world is thrown into chaos, about the Unconsecrated and their relentlessness.
Now she must choose between her village and her future, between the one she loves and the one who loves her. And she must face the truth about the Forest of Hands and Teeth. Could there be life outside a world surrounded by so much death?
Mary lives in a small village surrounded on all sides by the never ending forest; the forest of hands and teeth. For this forest is made not only of earth and trees, but of the unconsecrated who hunger for flesh and sinew, tearing with hands and gnashing their teeth. Mary’s family has already been torn apart by the unconsecrated, her father missing on one of the routine patrols of the fences that keep the village safe. Mary’s mother joins her father after she gets too close to the gates and is bitten by one of the unconsecrated outside, choosing to become a zombie instead of being killed before the infection takes over her body. After her death, Mary finds herself truly alone in the village; her older brother turns her out of their home. When no male speaks for Mary to take her as a bride, she has no other choice but to seek refuge with The Sisterhood — the holy, powerful, governing body of the village.
Mary has never fit in with her people; instead of conforming and accepting the simple life behind the fences surrounded by so much death and fear, she yearns for the dreams of her mother. For generations, her family has passed down tales of the world before the Return, about a world where people roamed free without the fear of the unconsecrated. Mostly, Mary loves the tales of a body of water spanning the horizon in endless blue — and it is her passion to finally see the ocean one day, and she will risk everything to find what else might be out there besides the constant terror that rules her life. Soon Mary discovers that the Sisterhood guards precious secrets from the village, about a life that might exist beyond the fences. And when the fences are finally breached, Mary knows that it is time she must choose between her dreams and the sheltered life she has always known.
The Forest of Hands and Teeth is an evocative, haunting novel and I loved every bit of it, reading it within a single seating. Narrated in the first person by young, passionate Mary, this is a gripping look at a post-apocalyptic world many times removed from the initial chaos of a zombie breakout. One thing I loved about this novel was the sense of uncertainty, and the lack of knowledge. Instead of being plopped into the thick of things as many apocalypse novels are wont to do, The Forest of Hands and Teeth instead focuses on the survivors in a drastically changed landscape. These villagers do not know much of anything — not the cause for the Return, not who built their fences, not if there’s anything else outside and beyond the forest. The Sisterhood fuels that doubt, keeping knowledge of any outside world to themselves, in order to protect their way of life.
Mary is the square cog that does not fit into the round hole with her dreams of the ocean and her insatiable curiosity. Her honest, passionate narration is impossible to put down as she struggles with love for a man she cannot have, duty to her family and the village, and her burning desire to see that the stories of her mother are true. Mary’s passion drives this novel, and her hope against all odds to find something more.
In many ways, the Forest of Hands and Teeth that surrounds these characters is a metaphor for growing up — choosing to live within the established confines, safely; or bursting through the fences to chance at the unknown. While Mary will stop at nothing to find her ocean after the fences are breached, her friends will not take that plunge. And it is this difference, this fire in Mary that makes her such a wonderful, compelling heroine.
I personally adore zombies, in film, in literature, in songs (if our Zombie Appreciation Week is any indicator). I am a bonafide junkie — and I don’t say this lightly. I am not a casual fan. Believe me when I say I have an extensive DVD collection of many, many zombie films (from the obvious to the extremely obscure), and a shelf devoted to the flesh eating undead at home. And speaking as a true fan of the genre, I can safely say that The Forest of Hands and Teeth does a phenomenal job of portraying the core issue at the heart of any great zombie tale.
While The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a zombie book, it is, along with the best in the zombie genre, a book about people. It is a book about living versus surviving, about growing up, about love and faith in the unknown. The zombies remain on the outside of the fences, forcing the characters to confront their issues and fears. They wait in the wings, while the still living are mired in conflict. Any yahoo that has seen a zombie movie knows that the gore and the guts and viscera is a wonderfully fun (and integral) part of the genre — but what separates the big boys from the rabble is the underlying message. The ability to tell a story using zombies (or whatever apocalypse) as a catalyst for the characters; i.e. George Romero and his socio-political stance in all of his “Dead” films (yes, even including the woeful Diary of the Dead entry fits this mold).
And, in this reviewer’s opinion, Ms. Ryan’s beautifully written debut novel will appeal to true fans of the Zombie, as well as newbies or those who might shy away from the genre.
Needless to say, as one of my most highly anticipated books of 2009 Carrie Ryan’s debut novel deeply moved and impressed me. Not only is her writing style poetic without being overly ornate — no small feat! — but her story flows beautifully with very few hitches. I absolutely adored this novel, and highly recommend it to book lovers everywhere.
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.
In my mother’s stories, passed down from her many-greats-grandmother, the ocean sounded like the wind through the trees and men used to ride the water. Once, when I was older and our village was suffering through a drought, I asked my mother why, if so much water existed, were there years when our own streams ran almost dry? She told me that the ocean was not for drinking—that the water was filled with salt.
That is when I stopped believing her about the ocean. How could there be so much salt in the universe and how could God allow so much water to become useless?
But there are times when I stand at the edge of the Forest of Hands and Teeth and look out at the wilderness that stretches on forever and wonder what it would be like if it were all water. I close my eyes and listen to the wind in the trees and imagine a world of nothing but water closing over my head.
It would be a world without the Unconsecrated, a world without the Forest of Hands and Teeth.
Often, my mother stands next to me holding her hand up over her eyes to block the sun and looking out past the fences and into the trees and brush, waiting to see if her husband will come home to her.
She is the only one who believes that he has not turned—that he might come home the same man he was when he left. I gave up on my father months ago and buried the pain of losing him as deeply as possible so that I could continue with my daily life. Now I sometimes fear coming to the edge of the Forest and looking past the fence. I am afraid I will see him there with the others: tattered clothes, sagging skin, the horrible pleading moan and the fingers scraped raw from pulling at the metal fences.
That no one has seen him gives my mother hope. At night she prays to God that he has found some sort of enclave similar to our village. That somewhere in the dense Forest he has found safety. But no one else has any hope. The Sisters tell us that ours is the only village left in the world.
My brother Jed has taken to volunteering extra shifts for the Guardian patrols that monitor the fence line. I know that, like me, he thinks our father is lost to the Unconsecrated and that he hopes to find him during the patrol of the perimeter and kill him before our mother sees what her husband has become.
People in our village have gone mad from seeing their loved ones as Unconsecrated. It was a woman—a mother—horrified at the sight of her son infected during a patrol, who set herself on fire and burned half of our town. That was the fire that destroyed my family’s heirlooms when I was a child, that obliterated our only ties to who we were as a people before the Return, though most were so corroded by then that they left only wisps of memories.
Jed and I watch our mother closely now and we never allow her to approach the fence line unaccompanied. At times Jed’s wife Beth used to join us on these vigils until she was sent to bed rest with her first child. Now it is just us.
And then one day Beth’s brother catches up with me while I am dunking our laundry in the stream that branches off the big river. For as long as I can remember Harold has been a friend of mine, one of the few in the village my age. He trades me a handful of wildflowers for my sopping sheets and we sit and watch the water flow over the rocks as he twists the sheets in complicated patterns to dry them out.
“How is your mother?” he asks me, because he is nothing if not polite.
I duck my head and wash my hands in the water. I know I should be getting back to her, that I have already taken too much time for myself today and that she is probably pacing, waiting for me. Jed is off on a long-term patrol of the perimeter, checking the strength of the fences, and my mother likes to spend her afternoons near the Forest looking for my father. I need to be there to comfort her just in case. To hold her back from the fences if she finds him. “She’s still holding out hope,” I say.
Harry clucks his tongue in sympathy. We both know there is little hope.
His hands seek out and cover mine under the water. I have known this was coming for months. I have seen the way he looks at me now, how his eyes have changed. How tension has crept into our friendship. We are no longer children and haven’t been for years.
“Mary, I…” He pauses for a second. “I was hoping that you would go with me to the Harvest Celebration next weekend.”
I look down at our hands in the water. I can feel my fingertips wrinkling in the cold and his skin feels soft and fleshy. I consider his offer. The Harvest Celebration is the time in the fall when those of marrying age declare themselves to one another. It is the beginning of the courtship, the time during the short winter days when the couple determines whether they will make a suitable match. Almost always the courtship will end in spring with Brethlaw—the weeklong celebration of wedding vows and christenings. It’s very rare that a courtship fails. Marriage in our village is not about love—it is about commitment.
Every year I wonder at the couples pairing up around me. At how my former childhood friends suddenly find partners, bond, prepare for the next step. Pledge themselves to one another and begin their courtships. I always assumed the same would happen to me when my time approached. That because of the sickness that wiped out so many of my peers when I was a child, it would be even more important that those of us of marrying age find a mate. So important that there wouldn’t be enough girls to spare for a life with the Sisterhood.
I even hoped that perhaps I would be lucky enough to find more than just a mate, to eventually find love like my mother and father.
And yet, even though I have been one of the few eligible during the past two years, I’ve been left aside.
I have spent the last weeks dealing with my father’s absence beyond the fences. Dealing with my mother’s despair and desolation. With my own grief and mourning. Until this moment it hasn’t occurred to me that I might be the last one asked to the Harvest Celebration. Or that I might be left unclaimed.
Excerpt from CarrieRyan.com
Additional Thoughts: Stick around tomorrow, when we will be having the talented Carrie Ryan over for a chat, and a giveaway of The Forest of Hands and Teeth!
Verdict: If you couldn’t tell, I am a huge fan. I cannot wait for the loose sequel coming in 2010. A stellar debut novel from a shining new talent. Brava.
Rating: 9 Damn Near Perfection
Reading Next: Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica George