There are not many books in my past twenty odd years of reading that have scared me to the point I was looking over my shoulder as I read, expecting the monsters from the book to be standing there. There are two books to this day that still send chills down my spine. One is The Stand by Stephen King. When I read that book, I tricked myself into believing that the US government created a virus that has wiped out half of mankind. The other is I am Legend, the short story by Richard Matheson about the last man on Earth trying to stay alive after the whole world has been transformed into flesh eating zombies.
I must admit that I hate everything to do with flesh eating zombies. I blame George Romero for Night of the Living Dead and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. Everyone has their fears. Mine are the zombie creatures that are walking, mindless, essentially soulless beings with only the hunger for a human’s flesh.
The latest book by Carrie Ryan called The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a cross between M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. This book has tapped deep into my fears and psyche. Imagine the world filled with zombies who want to eat you? You have no where to turn, for they are all around you, crying in hunger, waiting for the right moment to attack. Imagine the only thing that keeps you from being infected by them and becoming one of them or becoming zombie food is a fence that keeps them out. What if that fence was breached and they were able to come through? This is the world young Mary lives in.
Mary has dreams. She dreams of the ocean her mother told her about. Mary has never seen the ocean or has left her village that is surrounded by a fence that keeps the Unconsecrated out. The Unconsecrated are flesh eating zombies who have taken over the world. Mary is not sure how long the world has been like this, perhaps it started around her grandmother’s time. But all Mary knows is that she longs to go to the ocean, to escape the moaning and scraping of the Unconsecrated. She is slowly dying inside because she has the need to see the world, to see if there are other people just like her living in villages, safe from the zombies who hunger for human flesh.
The forest beyond Mary’s village is called the forest of hands and teeth, named for the zombies who would love nothing more to rip apart human flesh with their hands and tear at it with their teeth. Mary is so alone because her father has gone missing while he was on a patrol of the fences. Her mother has slowly become insane because her husband may have become one of the Unconsecrated. She wants to join him. It is Mary’s responsibility to keep her mother away from the fence. But Mary fails in her responsibility and her mother is infected. Because of this, Mary’s older brother Jeb turns away from her. She is sent to The Sisterhood. The Sisterhood rules over the village with the talk of god and scripture. Because Mary has no man who wants her, she will become a sister.
Mary is well known for the stories she tells. Her best friend Cass enjoys hearing about the ocean. She thinks it is just a story, that there can not be an endless body of water where there are no Unconsecrated. Cass loves Harry, who in turn loves Marry. Mary cares for Harry as a friend but has a deep longing for Harry’s younger brother Travis. One day Travis is brought to the Sisterhood because of a broken leg. As Mary prays for him to heal, they fall in love. But Mary is promised to the Sisterhood and Travis began courting Cass. If Mary wants out of the Sisterhood, she may have to turn to Harry.
Day in and day out Mary cares for Travis and learns the way of the Sisterhood. The Unconsecrated are always there in the background waiting. Mary becomes even more isolated and lonely. But then someone from the outside enters the village! Mary notices a girl wearing a bright red vest being held in one of the rooms in the cathedral that the Sisterhood lives in. She finds out she is Gabrielle from the outside. Mary is overjoyed! There is a world outside the village! But then Gabrielle has gone missing and Harry comes and wants to marry her. Travis and Cass will be married also. All hope is lost for Mary. But that is not the worst of it. Gabrielle is back but now she is an Unconsecrated and she has broken through the fence along with the other zombies.
Mary along with Cass, Travis, Harry, Jeb, his wife Beth, and a small orphan boy Jacob and Mary’s dog Argos that Harry gave her as a wedding are the only survivors. Now they must find a way to stay alive. There is another path that is surrounded by more fences. But they paths are unknown; they lead to anywhere. If they don’t find another village, they will die in the fence tunnel surrounded by the Unconsecrated. This gives Mary hope because one of these fenced in paths may lead her to the ocean.
The Forest of Teeth and Hands is a chilling debut by Carrie Ryan. This is a book not for the faint of heart. There is death and destruction, filled with violence and fear. The fear is not surviving from the monsters whose only goal is to consume the living. But is this truly surviving? Mary doesn’t think so.
The heroine Mary is full of hopes and dreams, unlike her friends and family who are happy in their present circumstance. They marry not necessarily for love but for the survival of their race. They work for the common good. Mary is so very different from everyone around her. She wants to spread her wings and fly because she is slowly suffocating. On one hand Mary wants Travis, who only wants to be with her and nothing more. That is his dream. At one point he even asks Mary why isn’t having him and loving him good enough? Why does she try to reach an impossible dream? Mary’s yearnings are both a wonderful attribute and her downfall. She wants more than what she has. And because of that she suffers.
Mary is definitely not some flighty teenager on the cusp of becoming a woman. She has needs and longs for love and respect. She finds that with Travis. She wants to escape the chaos that surrounds her. The ocean may be the impossible dream to reach, but it keeps her alive and strong. If she doesn’t have that to look forward to, she will become like the Unconsecrated, doomed to walk the Earth, hungering for something she may never have.
The Forest of Hands and Teeth is one book that stays with you days after reading. This is a young adult book, but the subject matter is more for older teens because of the adult matter. There are subtle scenes of sex that are handled really well, but the violence may really scare some readers. There is one scene with a zombie baby that made me stop reading for a moment because it was so unsettling.
This is the third book this year where I find myself torn between what grade it deserves. I had many questions because some scenes were not descriptive enough in their telling and some of the actions of the characters confused me. I believe The Forest of Hand and Teeth takes place one-hundred years in the future, but there is no technology or barely any records of the time before the zombie apocalypse. Also I was a bit critical when it came to Mary’s village, especially when the zombies attacked. There was really no plan “B”, as well as no real means of protection other then a fence. Also, how can such a village survive with no outside communication? In this time there are no such things as guns or other weapons to take out these zombies? Why would people cut themselves off from civilization? Mary may not be the one to find out these answers, but you would think the other villagers would be curious.
There is no happily ever after for Mary. Carrie takes a great deal of chances with the way things turn out with her characters, especially with the relationship between Mary and Travis. Mary isn’t the one who loses in all of this. It is actually Travis, because he loves Mary. He becomes the ultimate sacrifice because of her unrelenting desires and wants. There is a sequel planned for 2010 where all these questions these questions may be answered.
The Forest of Hand and Teeth is a book that makes your heart thump in your chest and makes you jump at shadows. Carrie Ryan, take a bow because you may have written the one book this year that will continue to give your readers nightmares for years to come. And I mean that as the highest compliment. (Delacorte Press)
Final Grade: B+
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