Book Review: In a Dark Wood

In a Dark Wood was written by Amanda Craig and published by Doubleday in 2000.  Her website describes the book as follows:

“In A Dark Wood is about Benedick Hunter, an unemployed actor and father on the verge of divorce and a mid-life crisis. His life takes a new direction when he discovers a book of fairy tales, by his mother Laura Perry. In 1965, Laura, an American children’s author and illustrator committed suicide in Primrose Hill. Benedick can remember nothing of his life until after her death, but becomes convinced that the stories and their illustrations, suggestively modeled on real people, contain a secret that will reveal why she killed herself. He is right – but, thanks to the elusive nature of fairy-tales, what he discovers is not at all what he expects.

Benedick goes on a quest to discover the true nature of his mother, interviewing those who knew her in the early 1960s. Increasingly erratic, his depression apparently lifts once he arrives in America, accompanied by his small son Cosmo. He visits New York, then travels to the sinister yet seductive landscape of North Carolina, where he meets the woman of his dreams. At last, he discovers not only the truth about Laura, but his own nature.”

I’ve always been drawn to fairy stories, and believe that the books we are meant to read will find us.  I found this book (or rather, it found me) in a great little bookstore in Baltimore, The Baltimore Chop.  (The Chop is now Cyclops Books.)

I picked up the book to read while on vacation, following a very difficult and emotionally draining disagreement with some family relations.  I was in the perfect state of mind to delve into the mind of a mentally unstable man at odds with the legacy of his mother, his father, his ex-wife, and his children.  (See this post for more on the blurred lines of the writer’s life and fiction.)

In a Dark Wood is one of my new favorite books.  It had the feel of a Margaret Atwood or A. S. Byatt novel in its darkness, its psychology, and its portrayal of complex human relationships.  It was an in-depth look at the demons we inherit from our family members, and what we do with them.  The prose is superb, and the fairy tales embedded within the text are as riveting as the narrative. 

Though Benedick’s mother is a children’s book writer and author, the fairy tales from her books are macabre–far more Grimm than Disney–and appeal to the darker sides of children and adults.  Benedick uses them to unravel the mystery of his past, while Craig embeds Benedick’s skewed and imbalanced reactions to the people around him on his journey. He is a flawed character, and his honesty and pessimism are fascinating.  Take his commentary on the disintegration of his marriage:

“In the back of my mind, there was still the hope that my wife would come to her senses and return.  I didn’t blame her for ruining our lives.  If anyone was to blame, it was our children.  The childless believe the horror of parenthood to revolve around dirty nappies for the first twenty minutes of every day, but what they don’t understand is how much worse everything else is.  When I thought of how Georgie and I had once been able to go to parties, stay up late, get drunk, read, take foreign holidays, and actually make love most nights instead of just having sex, I felt such sadness I groaned aloud. ”  (124)

The book is loaded with these disturbing commentaries on the people in his life.  It’s no wonder his relationships are all in shambles.

When I went on Amanda Craig’s website, I was thrilled to see that she had more novels.  I can’t wait to read more of her work.  I highly recommend this book.

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