Book Review: "In a Dark, Dark Wood" by Ruth Ware

As ever, here's my customary spoiler warning before I get into reviewing Ruth Ware's In a Dar, Dark Wood. If you're planning on picking yourself up a copy and don't want the plot spoiled, I wouldn't scroll down any further than the summary below. You have been warned.

When reclusive writer Leonora is invited to the English countryside for a weekend away, she reluctantly agrees to make the trip. But as the first night falls, revelations unfold among friends old and new, an unnerving memory shatters Leonora’s reserve, and a haunting realization creeps in: the party is not alone in the woods.

Like many of the authors that appear on my reading lists, I had never heard of Ruth Ware before my little sister literally put her books in my hand. My first impression of glancing at the initial cover of In a Dark, Dark Wood was positive enough (the praise that labelled Ruth Ware as an author with Gillian Flynn-esque potential indicated I was in familiar waters when it came to the thriller-horror genres).

I've obviously read Flynn's work by having had Dark Places as a previous entry on one of my reading lists, so I had my comparison to make before I even flipped open Ware's book. Now I know what you may be thinking: Is it fair to compare one author to another when reviewing the quality of a book?

Well it depends. At the risk of going out on a tangent, I always found it frustrating when I spotted a new author who's praise on their covers compared them to a more well-known author in the genre. It's a compliment to be sure, but runs the risk of undermining the potential of the upcoming author's individuality.

Stifling the disconcerting feeling I received from reading the O Magazine's praise of Ware's Flynn-esque nature, I dove right into A Dark, Dark Wood with the expectation of seeing the similarities O Magazine promised. For better or worse, they weren't wrong.

Ware's novel paints a chilling story of the past coming back to haunt Leonara (selectively Nora for short) in her attempt to reconcile with the irreverent but beautiful Clare who is set to wed her ex-school sweetheart James. A cast of characters joins these two in attending Clare's hen party (the equivalent of a bachelorette here in the states), who all seem to have a not-so-pleasant past with the bride-to-be. The premise works fine and the characters are all exceptionally written, but I found that my concerns began with Nora's almost obsessive nature when it came to James.

Why Nora is so deeply affected by James' intention to wed another does not surface until the last few chapters of the book, which is expected of this genre. It's a common trope in horror for the author to conceal aspects of the protagonist's character from the reader for the sake of misdirection, but for some odd reason this technique made Nora come off as unrealistic. I won't spoil the revelation as it is a major spoiler and will ultimately lead to spoiling the entire book by extension, but I will say it changed my mind about Nora's character by the end.

So is that a good thing or a bad? Good right? That's what the misdirection is for, to get you to not like (or trust) the protagonist until the secret's out. Well...

I'll admit, I'm not sure what it was about this past between Nora and James that didn't quite land with me. The premise began as such: Nora goes to the hen party not knowing Claire is marrying James, her ex from ten years prior. Maybe it was the way in which the reason why this union was affecting Nora was presented to me, or perhaps the sinister aspect of it at the end. I won't debate realism here, I lean more towards the possibility that the sinister aspect of the plot was not what I was expecting.

Unexpected outcomes are great, and I certainly give Ware that praise. I won't go as far as saying I am disappointed, but I will definitely say this is the part where I circle back to my earlier rant about Ware's comparison to Flynn. The similarities are definitely there, to the point that by the time Ware's novel came to the grand reveal of our culprit in this murder mystery, I had already put two and two together. If you've read Flynn by this point, there isn't much you'll find that won't be too unfamiliar to the thrills you've experienced before. That being said, this would then in turn be the book you'd be recommended if you enjoyed Flynn's work.

Let me say two things here:

1) I have yet to read any other books by Ruth Ware, therefore, I am in no way condemning her writing. For all I know, her other books are far superior and have more to offer. I'm more inclined to believe this considering she's definitely a writer gifted with potential.

2) I'm also a writer who has studied a lot of craft and witnessed many tropes so, yes, it is a bit more difficult to surprise me. Through my own work in my current project of writing fantasy and horror, I've gained an understanding of what is required to satisfy the thrill of both genres. This in turn makes me privy to certain techniques Ware obviously had to use.

This review is all over the place, so I'll wrap things up. Ware's an addition to the horror genre with plenty of potential. Though I wish she had had less similarities to Flynn's manner of story telling, I wouldn't mind picking up another of Ware's books some time soon.

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