Random House, 2009, 312 pages
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...
Mary lives in the village. Mary is in love with Travis. But Travis loves Cass. Harry is Travis's brother. Harry loves Mary. But Mary doesn't love Harry. Oh no! What will Mary do? Mary is also bored. The village is surrounded by zombies. Mary can't go anywhere. What will Mary do? What will the zombies do? Who will marry Mary?
The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a debut YA novel from Carrie Ryan. It's now up to a trilogy, I believe. It's hugely popular. It's trite, cliched, with an unlikeable protagonist who never grows, worldbuilding that makes the works of John Christopher seem sophisticated (I loved John Christopher, btw -- in elementary school), and it's written at about a fifth grade reading level.
Outside, pure white snow blankets the trees and fence, blanketing the Unconsecrated. It is a bright, clear day, the sun sparkling off the ice crystals. One of those days when you can't understand why there is such beauty in a world that is nothing but ugly.
It is almost too much to bear.
I wander to the bed and kneel by it the way I used to do when Travis was here. I press my face into his pillow, trying to smell him, trying to remember. It is a test to see if I can really give him up.
I know that I never will. Even to save him. I am too selfish.
This is Mary's voice all through the novel. Short, bland sentences, mostly sounding like the annoying adolescent girl she is.
The Village of Nuns and Virgins
Mary lives in a place that's just called "the village." It's protected from the Unconsecrated (the word "zombie" is never actually used in the book) by a chain link fence. This fence system was built generations ago by the survivors of the Return (the original zombie outbreak), and the villagers have lived behind the fence ever since.
After the zombie apocalypse, we don't have electricity
or a civilization, but at least we haven't run out of
lip gloss, mascara, or hair salons.
Okay, first of all, see The Walking Dead for a good example of why a chain link fence isn't going to hold off zombie hordes indefinitely. Even slow-moving, passive ones like most zombies in this book are. It seems inevitable that eventually the defenses are going to fail and the zombies are going to swarm the village, so it's no surprise when this does in fact happen. The only surprise is that it took so long.
The village is run by the Sisterhood, who give orders to the Guardians, who man the watchtowers and protect the village. Mary, as the book begins, is old enough for the Harvest Celebration, where some lucky girls are "spoken for" by a boy and get to marry and have children and keep living in the village. Old maids, however, are not tolerated. If no boy wants to marry you, you can either join the Sisterhood or be put out in the Forest.
Yes, seriously. There is a theme running through the book, running in parallel to the survival tale, about love and marriage and commitment, with Mary being the Juliet of the story, insisting that she wants to marry for LURVE and she wants the boy she lurves to lurve her back, and she resents the boy she doesn't love for wanting her, and then she resents him for not speaking for her and saving her from being forced to join the Sisterhood. There is some interesting subtext there (mostly voiced by Mary's friend Cass) about how marriage, especially in a future as bleak as this one, is about commitment and community, not about love. But we never really explore that message because Mary doesn't care, and she never learns any lessons from her mistakes.
The Sisterhood is some kind of pseudo-Catholic order responsible for preserving what little knowledge remains from the time before, and hiding it from everyone else. They talk about God and study the Scriptures and it's evident that they are Christians of some sort, or at least based on the Christian tradition, but other than a mention of Christmas there is no explicit mention of Christianity; the Scriptures can probably be assumed to be the Bible, but Ryan punts throughout the book, making this religion as generic as possible.
Evidently, though, it's a religion which, even though run entirely by women (there are no priests to go with the Sisterhood) has reverted to pre-medieval gender roles. Women either get married or they join the Sisterhood, period. No mention of anyone ever getting divorced, or cheating on their spouses. (And are there any non-heterosexuals in the post-apocalyptic future? Pfft, you jest.) Men apparently can still live in the village even if they don't marry, but a woman who's letting her womb go to waste can't expect to be fed and housed unless a family member will take her in. And property always goes to the eldest son, so when Mary's mother dies, her asshole older brother turns her out. This leads to her going to the Cathedral, and when she's asked if she wants to join the Sisterhood, she's like "Yeah, what other choice do I have?" And Sister Tabitha drags her by the hair out to the Forest, shows her a bunch of Unconsecrated, and says "Of course you have a choice."
None of this is ever examined. The village is presented as kind of a harsh place to live, what with being surrounded by Unconsecrated and all, but the criticisms that Mary and a few other characters have of their society are based entirely on the inflexibility of the Sisterhood's doctrines and the removal of love from the equation, not on all the other ways their society is messed up. Girls are passive commodities. There is no learning or technological development. There is no exploration. The Sisterhood tells them there are no other people anywhere else, and most everyone accepts this. There's this great big system of fenced paths leading through the Forest of Hands and Teeth and no one is ever tempted to go exploring. They are living in a stagnant society whose destruction is inevitable. I guess that was one of the points Ryan was trying to make, but it's lost beneath the angsty whine of Mary Sue and her love quadrangle.
It's All About Mary
I hated Mary. She spends the first half of the book being a whiny, selfish little brat. She doesn't like the role she's been relegated to, but she does nothing to resist it. And as the book goes on, she (and all the other characters) are dragged into a four-way between her and Cass and Travis and Harry. Travis is Harry's older brother. Harry is Mary's friend, but he loves her. No, wait, actually he loves Cass. But he asks (belatedly) to marry Mary to save her from the Sisterhood. Cass loves Harry, but she's betrothed to Travis. Travis loves Cass, not Mary. Except later it turns out he loves Mary. So the sensible thing would be for Mary to marry Travis and Cass to marry Harry and everyone would be happy, except (a) this is an irrationally rigid society so once you're engaged, sorry, that vagina belongs to that man, you can't trade them, and (b) whoops, turns out Travis and Harry both love Mary.
Much of the second half of the book is spent on Mary having both boys wanting her and being dissatisfied no matter what. Mary finally realizes she will never be happy in the village, and she wants to see the ocean her mother told her about. Spurred on a bit by the destruction of the village, the entire gang (in a remarkable bit of coincidence, the foursome described above, plus Mary's asshole older brother and his wife, all escape together) finally sets off through the Forest, looking for refuge elsewhere.
Mary continues to make bad choices, getting almost everyone around her killed because they pretty much go along with whatever she wants, and does she ever feel responsible or guilty or think about anything except what she wants? No, no she does not.
Written for twelve-year-olds who've never been kissed
His hands slip through my hair and his lips are close, oh so close to mine. Memories and doubts and fears flood through me and I push them all away so that I'm only here and only now.
We breathe each other, gasp for more air, for more of each other. And then his lips brush mine. Gentle, soft, like a leaf falling on water.
He takes my hands and then I feel his hesitation. Feel his fingers running over the Binding Rope that still dangles from my wrist.
He lets go of me, his lips leave mine and I feel tears hot on my cheeks. I can't bear to meet his eyes. To know that he wonders.
Now and then Ryan manages some lovely bits of writing, but unfortunately, they are mostly limited to the kissing scenes, and then we're reminded that it's still all about Mary. Here, Travis is suddenly reminded that Mary belongs to his brother. Oh no! Did Mary have sex with Harry? 'Cause then she'd totally be spoiled goods, you know?
This... juvenile approach seems aimed at exactly the sort of audience who wants to read a story about a plain, not particularly attractive girl who has two hot guys (brothers, even) lusting after her. I'm not going to use the T-word, but we all know why this sort of protagonist exists, right?
Ryan never lets any of them make adult choices and spoil the fan fic. There are several scenes that heavily imply that Mary has sex with both Harry and Travis, but you have to read between the lines. If you want to believe that Mary remains a virgin (or only sleeps with the guy you're shipping her with), it's easy to skip past the part about her waking up in the same bed with Harry, or all the hot sweaty kissing scenes with Travis that never quite reach a consummation.
It's readable, but so much lost promise
And yet I swing. With all my strength I pull that ax across the hallway, severing heads from necks, decapitating them in order to end their desperate existence. I don't even realize that I am yelling until I have to suck in gulps of air. The ax lodges in the wall and I tug it free and swing again, blood slinging from the blade. Again and again I swing, cutting down the Unconsecrated that fill the hallway.
For the most part, I found Ryan's prose flat and simple, the story simple-minded. When Mary suddenly gains a level in bad-ass (for which she is adoringly praised later by Travis), it seems to come out of the blue and be at odds with her character thus far.
Frustratingly, the book ends with Mary reaching the ocean, never having paid for any of her bad decisions or learning much from them, and a whole bunch of plot points have been left dangling. There was a girl who reached their village from Outside. Where did she come from? Why is there a system of numbered, fenced paths through the Forest? Why are there some zombies who turn out to be faster and more aggressive than the rest? How much did the Sisterhood really know and what were they hiding?
I assume these questions are probably answered in the later books, but I am not really curious enough to read them.
The Forest of Hands and Teeth has all the ingredients necessary to entertain middle school readers. For those who would like something similar that's still popcorn entertainment but aimed at grown-ups, I'd recommend I Am Legend or The Passage or Feed, all equally entertaining but vastly superior books.
If anyone has read the sequels, feel free to spoiler me in the comments: does Ryan ever answer any of the issues raised in the first book?
Verdict: A Forest of Hands of Teeth is a zombie story with more kissing than biting. It's a quick, entertaining read, but the worldbuilding is flat and regressive and written so as not to challenge anyone above the age of twelve. I am frankly a bit mystified at its bestseller status, and suspect it's one of those books that was lucky enough to catch a trendy wave (zombie apocalypse + love triangle!) at the time of its publication. It's not a bad book, but to me, it was a thoroughly unimpressive one.
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