Rating (out of 5): 4 stars
Everyone who recommended this book to me billed it as a zombie romance. Each time I heard or read that phrase, I kept picturing two of the living dead presenting brains instead of flowers as tokens of affection. The idea of a zombie love story just made this image pop in my mind. While that would be totally funny, it’s not akin to what I’ve been reading. Luckily, I read the inside flap on the dust jacket, and didn’t see any hints of the main character being a zombie.
I sank my teeth in, as it were, and was impressed by both the plot and themes of Carrie Ryan’s novel. The Forest of Hands and Teeth is not a zombie romance book. It’s a love story that just happens to have zombies as outside forces impacting the living characters. And, despite the dark tone, it’s a refreshing read. It’s not a story you’ve read before. (Though one could draw some similarities to the film The Village.)
Mary’s world is sheltered. Everyone knows it, and they’ve been convinced they should be thankful for the cloistering. The community is surrounded by a towering fence. Outside lies the Forest of Hands and Teeth, home to The Unconsecrated. Throughout the day The Unconsecrated will attack the fence, breaking fingers and limbs, attempting to get at the living inside. The Sisterhood (a religious authority, as you may have guessed) runs the town, and blames the wanton ways of society before The Return for the existence of the aforementioned zombies. All are taught that their community is the only one left. Everyone else has been killed or turned into one of The Unconsecrated.
Mary doesn’t believe that. For one, why are there paths leading away from their village? For another, her mother passed down stories of the ocean — such a vast body of water could surely keep The Unconsecrated at bay. She passes along her mother’s stories of the ocean, of the world before The Return to her friends, and knows there must be more out there.
As Mary doesn’t work hard to toe the party line, she finds herself under the watchful eye of The Sisterhood. She spots a girl in vivid red enter the village from outside the fence, but the sisters keep her hidden. The Sisterhood is keeping secrets, and Mary realizes she has options. But then the fence is breached, people are dying and she must flee.
She always wanted to leave, to prove there was more to the world, to find the ocean. But now she has her friends with her, including the guy she loves, his brother who loves her and her best friend who thinks leaving the village even when it is in shambles is a bad idea. Choosing to build the life she thought she wanted with the person she loves is hard when the chance to find the ocean, and maybe escape The Unconsecrated, is nearly in reach.
Often doing what is best for ourselves can be hard, especially as we grow. Carrie Ryan does an excellent job of depicting the internal strife that comes when you realize you’ve outgrown your dreams. When you realize you want something bigger, and are forced to make the hard choice to act on it. In a much more secondary way, it paints a picture of why transparency in government is vital. If the citizens had known more about The Unconsecrated, about the creation of their village, it’s likely they would have been better prepared.
While this review doesn’t focus on the romance angle, mostly to avoid spoilers, the interactions between couples are real, not storybook. Each of the characters in The Forest of Hands and Teeth feels honest to the reader, which is something I highly value.
Carrie Ryan recently released the sequel to this novel titled The Dead-Tossed Waves, which has been pushed toward the top of my to-read list.