The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

2009. 308 pages. Hardcover. Delacorte Press.

From: the public library, yep.

In a nutshell:

Mary lives in a village that is fenced in to keep out the Unconsecrated (a.k.a zombies) who live in the forest.  When her mother becomes one of the Unconsecrated, Mary becomes a ward of the Sisterhood, the religious and civil authorities of the village.  Her curiosity about the outside world, and particularly her desire to see the ocean, makes her an object of suspicion to the Sisters.  Meanwhile, as she and her friends have come of age to marry, romantic complications also occupy her mind.

When unthinkable disaster strikes the village, Mary and her friends must make some difficult choices to survive.

Review:

For this review, I’m going to look at The Forest of Hands and Teeth in comparison to the zombie stories I know.  I came to the book already familiar with zombies.  I have seen the movies Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later (and its sequel), and Shaun of the Dead.  I’ve read and loved Max Brooks’ World War Z, which tells about world-wide zombie catastrophe in the form of oral history.  Heck, I’ve even participated in a zombie walk.

Zombie narratives are certainly about the horror element, what with all the cannibalism and the spectre of loved ones resurrecting as mindless shells wanting to eat you.  However, in my experience, successful zombie tales usually serve up some social commentary with the gore.  The joke of Shaun of the Dead is that Shaun can’t tell that there are zombies at first, because prior to the outbreak, many people went about their days in a dull stupor.  World War Z strikes a nerve as it describes government and military failures to respond to widespread disaster.

In this context of zombie-stories as social commentary, Carrie Ryan has set herself a challenge.   By placing The Forest of Hands and Teeth far into the future, into an unfamiliar culture and society, she undercuts any commentary’s ability to strike home with the reader.

Indeed, the story’s tropes are more in line with a dystopian narrative than a zombie narrative.  There is the closed-off nature of the village, with its strict rules and rituals.  The heroine is determined to find out the truth about her village and the world, even if it puts her in peril.  So, while The Forest of Hands and Teeth has zombies, I can’t really think of it as a zombie narrative.

Now I do like dystopian stories and there’s certainly nothing wrong with them.  Still, I can’t help feeling like the point of zombies has been lost by combining it with this unfamiliar dystopian society.  That said, Ryan does offers some tantalizing dystopian plot threads regarding the Sisterhood, their governing and beliefs.  I was especially intrigued by their behavior to a visitor from outside the village.

Unfortunately, these somewhat promising storylines are given short shrift in favor of a really annoying love quadrangle.  Mary loves Travis.  Travis’ brother Harry loves Mary.  Mary’s best friend Cass is tied to Travis.  And so on.  I was hoping this storyline would settle down as the body count got higher, but it persists despite the carnage, draining my sympathies for all of the characters as I read on.  In particular, I struggled to understand Mary’s motivations and actions.

I did finish the book, so obviously I cared to know what happened in the end, but I was really disappointed when I finished. My thanks to Jenny of Jenny’s Books, whose recent ‘discontented’ review of The Forest of Hands and Teeth gave me the gumption to not hold back on my own reaction to the book.

So I don’t know if I’ll pick up the quasi-sequel, The Dead-Tossed Waves.  I’ve read in some reviews that it’s better than this one.  If you’ve read it, let me know how you think it compares.

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

  1. I think I added this to my wishlist at some point but had forgotten what it was about. I just love that title.

    And I loved “Shaun of the Dead.” I had forgotten all about it so thanks for the reminder!

  2. i actually really enjoyed this one – but then again im not a huge fan of zombies and love dystopian fiction…I tried reading the Dead Tossed Waves and halfway through gave up- there was nothing there, and quite frankly it bored me out of my brain.

  3. I felt the same way about you, but did read the 2nd book straight away and liked it a bit better because it answered some of the questions that left unanswered in the first book.

    here are my reviews (spoiler free):

    Book 1:
    http://mentalfoodie.blogspot.com/2010/05/book-review-forest-of-hands-and-teeth.html

    Book 2:
    http://mentalfoodie.blogspot.com/2010/05/book-review-dead-tossed-waves-forest-of.html

    • Christa – Thanks for the links to your reviews! Your review of Dead-Tossed Waves has me wanting to read it just to see what more it says about the Sisterhood and the other things left unresolved from the first book.

  4. I was just talking about this this afternoon! I hate the fact that YA fiction seems to require romance these days- nothing against romance, but there are some places I certainly don’t expect to see it, especially teen romance in a horror novel. Absolutely silly.

  5. Jenners – It is a great title. And you’re welcome – Shaun of the Dead is such a fun movie!

    Aimee – I like dystopian fiction too, don’t get me wrong. I’ve read some very fine dystopian fiction. Interestingly, I think I’ve read a couple reviews by others who – similar to you – like this book but don’t care for zombies generally. Wonder if that’s a trend? Wow, not good news about Dead-Tossed Waves.

    Lit Omnivore – I’ll admit that I like a bit of romance in stories, but it needs to make sense in the story’s context. In this book, it was too dominant for my tastes and didn’t have an organic feel to it.

  6. Oh, I couldn’t stand the whole this one loves that one oh the angst she loves him and he loves someone else etc., etc. I agree with you that the interesting parts of the story, with the Sisterhood, were completely abandoned, to the severe detriment of the book as a whole.

  7. My husband read this and hated it. All the way through he kept quoting Mary to me in not a good way. Some reviewers have disliked it.

  8. a very thorough review!
    i’m glad you didn’t hold back and and gave us what your true thoughts on the book are. it’s nice to read different opinions and get a balance of what the book is about. i haven’t read the book yet but it was on my wishlist. not sure if i’ll ever get to it though.

  9. Jenny – Glad to know that others were turned off by the excessive angst.

    Jessica – I had been running across more positive than negative reviews of this one, but I think I remember that other bloggers had mentioned not caring for Mary that much.

    toothy – Yeah, the variety of opinions among different reviewers is what makes reading book reviews interesting!

  10. Jennifer

    Hey you, not sure I would read this book either, though it is interesting I was reading similar genres with re-reading The Giver and it’s companion book Gathering Blue. The next book is The Messenger. Short reads meant for teens, but am enjoying a lighter summer reading while reading some Donald Miller and I just got Bad Mother in today. Will let you know what I think:)

  11. Oh yes, I’ve read The Giver, Gathering Blue and The Messenger. Mom gave me The Messenger as a gift for my birthday one year. I don’t remember Gathering Blue that well, but I remember enjoying the other two.

  12. I had started this book over a month ago but found the beginning both depressing and annoying so I put it aside and haven’t returned to it yet, though since I spent the money on it I do intend to read the rest as some point. I just hope it gets better.

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