The Forest of Hands and Teeth book 3
Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack
The Dark and Hollow Places is described on the back of the book as a “companion volume” to two others; in the author’s bio at the back it’s called volume three in a trilogy. I think the second is a more accurate description, and as a result the novel lacks a little when read by itself. Even so, it manages to be an interesting and entertaining read; it’s well suited to the intended young adult audience but will also hold the interest of many adult readers.
The Dark and Hollow Placestells the story of Annah. When she was a child, she and her twin (Abigail), and the older Elias left their village to explore in the forbidden forest. When Abigail fell and hurt herself, Elias and Annah carried on with their adventure. They became irrevocably lost, never able to return to their village. Annah has spent years racked with grief and guilt for her sister. Perhaps she died alone in the forest. Perhaps she too wandered lost and alone. Perhaps she found her way back to the village. Annah has never known and the guilt eats at her every day. Eventually Annah and Elias found their way to the City, one of the few remaining refuges. Here they eked out a living for years. Until eventually Elias joined the Recruiters, a semi-military corps that is supposed to provide some protection for the citizens. He was supposed to return after his two year hitch, but it’s been three years and there’s still no sign of him. Annah doesn’t know if he’s dead, or if he’s alive but has chosen not to return to her.
As this novel opens, Annah finally becomes convinced that the city is no longer the refuge it once was. Her best chance is to leave the city and try once more to find her way home to her village in the forest. As Annah leaves the city, still torn, her attention is drawn by a commotion on the side of the bridge reserved for those entering the city. Surely that was her sister she saw? Even after all these years Annah doesn’t think she could be mistaken. So she fights her way back into the city, and quickly finds herself caught up in an intense struggle for survival as she tries to find her sister.
In general, the novel is well put together and the plot flows well. There is one hideous clanger late in the text; I won’t detail it as it might be regarded by some as including spoilers. However, it is an interaction involving a photograph that makes absolutely no sense if everything we have been told before is true. There is no indication we’re supposed to start disbelieving the bulk of the text; I suspect Ryan just plain screwed up and no-one caught it. It’s a small detail, but it stuck out enough to bother me for a substantial part of the remaining text as I kept an eye out for the (never arriving) explanation. Apart from this distraction, the relatively straightforward plot plays out with a fair degree of tension; there is a lot at stake emotionally for the characters and that adds depth to the story.
Some aspects of the plot are carefully alluded to only indirectly. For example, Annah and her sister are regularly threatened with rape. These threats are presented in such a way that an older audience will clearly understand them, but younger readers may interpret them as a different kind of threat – a beating, perhaps. This allows Ryan to be quite realistic about the situation for her older readers, while still not asking younger readers to deal with things they may not be ready to face yet. It’s intelligently done, not shying away from the issue, but widening her audience by making it more readable for a wider age range.
The characterisation, while a strength for the novel, was also probably the area that sometimes lacked a little without the background of the previous books. In particular, the relationship between Annah and Elias rang a little hollow, and I think that was primarily because, as a new reader, I hadn’t seen them build and sustain their relationship. Elias seemed a rather cardboard figure, as for a long time we saw him only through Annah’s eyes. More importantly, without that backstory it was difficult to engage fully with the changed relationship between them, as I’d never seen the original relationship. In contrast, the relationship between Annah and her sister was strongly drawn. It was easy to believe in their pleasure at being back together, their discomfort at the fact it wasn’t as easy as Annah had imagined, their clashes and their strong loyalty. The relationship between Annah and Catcher was also quite believable, and highlighted some of the intensity that people bring to a relationship when they’re in desperate circumstances. It also depicted both the uncertainty and intensity that young adults can bring to relationships very well.