In a Dark, Dark, Wood: A Review

Writer: Mia Manning

   In a Dark, Dark Wood, a novel soon to be a motion picture, is a murder mystery written by British author Ruth Ware. The novel’s main character and narrator, tells her story in England, as she revisits her teenage years when she is invited to a ‘hen’ party to celebrate an old friend’s upcoming wedding, among her teenage flashbacks, the booze, and drugs, Ware sets her mystery. Nora has been avoiding these friends for many years, and while with them she is forced to relive past horrors such as bullying, ostracism, and heartbreak, and struggle with being surrounded by friends who only know her as the mousey girl from their past. The variables surrounding the novel place Ware in the optimal position to produce a truly suspenseful mystery, however, this position is not well utilized.

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    The setting of this novel is necessary to take into consideration, as Ware continuously uses British slang throughout the work. This neither detracts nor adds anything to the novel itself, but readers who are not English, or not familiar with such sayings, should be informed that some research into British slang may be required in order to make the most of the novel. In addition, throughout In a Dark, Dark Wood, Nora also struggles to recall the events of the celebratory weekend, as the setting of the story flips between the hospital that Nora is recovering at after the crime to the hen night itself, which gets explained as a flashback. This ultimately makes the novel become hard to follow; and if the reader is more interested in a novel that lays the crime out fully at the start of the novel, or at least more linearly, this is not the novel for them.

The characters central to the story are all rather odd, including Nora herself. This character choice is most likely an effort to make the novel a surprising thriller with a twist, but, instead, it hinders the dialogue and character development, especially since the ending is somewhat predictable. The characters traits seem cheesy, as if Ruth Ware was nervous about the book becoming too predictable and thus threw in various character quirks to throw the reader off. While this might typically be okay, these quirks are under-developed and are only shown in glimpses, making this part of the novel seem rushed, like a mere afterthought. As mentioned previously, Nora is also facing the horrors of her teenage years, some of which are not revealed to the reader until the very end. It is brought up many times throughout the novel, though, and is often referred to as her “biggest secret.” However, the discreteness of this secret also feels cheesy and thus makes Nora’s character feel strange, like she is trying too hard to be mysterious or shocking. Although the criminal in this novel is not good character, they are not a petrifying villain either. Comparatively, the villain lacks the depth some authors give their antagonist; ultimately meaning that if the reader is on the search for deeply twisted, intoxicating characters In a Dark, Dark Wood does not have that creative spark.

The passage of time throughout the book is also strange: some scenes feel as if they are dragging on for centuries, while others pass by far too quickly or are bombarded with pointless details. For instance, the start of the novel lugs on with descriptions that do not aid the story. These parts could have been far more concise if such details had been put elsewhere. As the novel builds in suspense, the scenes become less focused on the mystery itself, and far more focused on minute details; this could have been an attempt to hint at the true nature of the characters, or foreshadow who the murderer is in a thrilling way, but it detracts focus from both of these. The narration Ward choses of having Nora see the weekend through flashbacks and then returning to her hospital bed, where she is recovering from the events that occurred during the weekend, also creates confusion in the plot as the tone is completely different in these separate environments and they do not fit together. The reader is left wanting more mystery and thrills and considerably less imagery.

Not only does the novel battle with being suspenseful, the novel also tries too hard funny, most likely in an attempt to ease the tension of the serious events to come. The characters frequently make immature, inappropriate jokes, and since the novel is set during a hen weekend, they also make many immature decisions, such as indulging in alcohol and drugs.  While this is somewhat expected because of the typical nature of such events, it is not enjoyable for the reader to witness, instead the read is like listening to rebellious teenagers party without parental supervision for the first time. The novel also tries extremely hard to be scary, which again, is expected, considering the genre of the novel. However, including an Ouija Board that spells out ‘murder’ in a story that has nothing to do with the supernatural, is a bit much. Of course, sense of humor, as well as fear factor is extremely subjective, but nonetheless this would not be a novel worth mentioning to someone who enjoys a believable balance between humor and horror.

While In a Dark, Dark Wood is certainly not the best mystery novel on the shelves, it is not the worst either. It is merely okay, and could use some serious improvement, such as expanding on the minor characters personalities and backstory, making the villain more unpleasant, and using a better suited narration method. Despite not being a particularly beautiful novel, it is also possible that the story will translate better when approached as a movie and create more composure between the scenes and characters while not sacrificing imagery.