The Forest of Hands and Teeth
First Line: My mother used to tell me about the ocean.
Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a post-apocalyptic bildungsroman…with zombies. Mary is teen living in an a village surrounded by the titular forest. The world as we know it is gone as an unexplained event has given birth to the Unconsecrated (zombies) and hordes of undead seemed to have caused society to collapse. Mary’s village has no contact outside the fence the protects its borders and whose values and knowledge are dictated by a stern and religious order of Sisters. A series of events unfold and the fences are breached sending Mary and a handful of others on the run towards the desperate dream of the ocean; only half-remembered by Mary through stories her mother used to tell.
I’ll say this before I go on, since talking at length about this novel is difficult to do without some spoilers, if you’re looking for a taught, tense, and chilling tale of growing up in isolation with the constant threat of death (death that might wear a familiar face) beating on a thin fence every day then The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a novel worth checking out.
The thing I love about post-apocalyptic novels (or media of any kind), particularly ones set long after the apocalyptic event, is the sense of discovery. Even if it isn’t central to what is going on in the story there is a sense of mystery to everything the read sees. There is a sudden transformation of the mundane into the magical. In The Forest of Hands and Teeth that sensation comes across strongest when the group discovers another village overrun by zombies. I won’t go into details but the small tidbits we get are haunting; an effect magnified by the strong reaction Mary has to her own discoveries while there. The same sensation is felt during Mary’s exploration beneath the Church and during the groups’ trek beyond the bounds of the village. For me a post-apocalyptic novel lives or dies by those moments, those brief flashes of insight that illuminate but don’t necessarily explain, and it is an area in which The Forest of Hands and Teeth excels.
Ryan also does an excellent job of combining a rather disparate and varied number of elements from different genres into a cohesive whole. The Forest of Hands and Teeth is, as I mentioned, a bildungsroman but mashed together with a post-apocalyptic survival horror romance. At first glance these genres shouldn’t sit so well together but the tension of Mary’s family life and her anxiety about her future feeds into the tension generated by the more tangible threat of the unconsecrated letting both those elements feed into one another creating an atmosphere thrumming with unease and disquiet. That atmosphere, combined with the religious underpinnings of society and the emphasis placed on procreation, called to mind Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale which, though different in plot details, is also about a young woman growing up in an isolationist society cast off from the remnants of our world and escaping towards a better place.
The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a very mature young adult novel that readers both old and young will likely find enjoyable. While the romantic elements of the story had a bit of a melodramatic flair Ryan does a nice job balancing the hormone-heavy nature of your average teenage relationship with somewhat more adult perspective a survival society might produce. The sequel, The Dead Tossed Waves, is available now and I fully expect to work into the reading stack sometime soon.