In a Dark, Dark Wood
Ruth Ware
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Buy *In a Dark, Dark Wood* by Ruth Wareonline

In a Dark, Dark Wood
Ruth Ware
Gallery / Scout Press
352 pages
April 2016
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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The psychological spell that can be cast by a combination of charm and evil is personified in Ware’s debut novel, with its character reminiscent of the wicked fairy spun into life in the deep, dark woods. Infusing her story with an atmosphere as foreboding as it is claustrophobic, Ware’s compelling tale centers on fiction writer Leonora Shaw, who lives an isolated, independent life in London. As Leonora (or "Nora," as she now likes to be called) accepts the invitation for a weekend away at a hen party near Clare Cavendish’s old stomping ground in Northumberland, Ware details Nora’s affair with a boy called James whose love for her eventually reveals the hidden skeletons in Nora’s teenage closet.

Nora is initially reluctant to attend the party, mainly because other than Clare she only recognizes one other name: old friend Nina, whom she emails asking whether the host, Clare’s friend Flo, has perhaps made a mistake in asking her. But Nina is unable to answer the questions that continually buzz and build inside Nora’s head. Up until now, Clare was resolutely part of Nora’s past, so why Clare and why now? And why is Nora invited to the hen party but not the wedding? From Flo’s breezy email (“she often talks about you, she’d really love for you to be there!”), a small, nagging part of the invitation steadily pricks at Nora’s conscience. Nora fears that if she rekindles her friendship with Clare ten years after “everything that happened,” something sinister will come forward, manifesting itself in a way that always seems to be lurking inside beautiful Clare.

From this initial setup, Ware ramps up her thriller in a story that both disturbs and compels. The author bathes her audience in a strong dose of chills: the mystery surrounding Clare and Nora’s friendship, as well as the state of Nora’s sad heart as she travels with Nina deep into Kielder Forest and into the isolated country lanes of Northumberland, where Flo’s aunt’s glass and steel house on Stainbridge Road painfully exposes its great façade to the eyes of the whole valley.

In the midst of this silent, unsettling place, memories are couched in the stillness of time as Nora attempts to reconnect with Clare, Flo, and two other friends, Tom and Melanie. At first there’s a feeling of camaraderie, a Masonic bond as the group drink and party, seemingly unconcerned that there’s no mobile phone reception, that the deep, dark shadowy forest generates a chilly and lingering unease, and that the trees themselves seem to take a collective step towards the house, edging in to shut out the sky.

In a tale awash in emotional anguish, the Glass House becomes more like a glass cage, “blasting its light blindly out into the dusk, like a lantern in the dark.” Although Nora has spent the ten years since trying to forget James and build a chrysalis of assurance and self-sufficiency around herself, all is in danger of collapsing when Ware juxtaposes Nora’s grieving story with scenes of her lying in a hospital bed, alone but not quite. Through the pain and the dreams of blood that spread and pool and soak her, Nora sees the back of a police officer’s head along with the doctors who keep asking her questions she can’t answer.

Nora just wishes she had more an idea of what happened that weekend before she vanished into the night and ended up in hospital, scarred and bloodied and battered. She’s tormented that Clare might have been hiding the truth from her all along. Yet Nora can remember little, apart from resenting Nina for goading her with her horribly needling questions--and Flo, even Tom for gawping as she drank, Clare for forcing her to come and deciding to marry James and “starting this whole chain off.”

In her impressive debut, Ware builds her narrative in a series of unusual twists that balance Nora’s paranoia and lack of memory against a kindly but suspicious police detective. There is something incredibly personal and malicious about the way Nora was deliberately dragged into a situation where someone is dead, where a message about murder is a sign that makes her and her friends even more crazed and frightened.

Ware transports us into this relentlessly snowy, shadowy landscape of nightmares and strange happenings that unwind in a dark mesh of betrayal, secrets and deceit. Nora’s memories of beloved James begin to shift once again into a shiver of disquiet as she frantically searches for the truth about what really happened that fateful, terrible night.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2015

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