Fiction – paperback; Phoenix; 273 pages; 2002.
Set in the countryside of western Ireland, this dark, brooding book is based on a real life triple murder in which a man shot dead three people — a woman, her young child and a priest — in a forest glade in 1994. But wounds run deep and Edna O’Brien, who wrote the book eight years later, was accused of exploiting a gruesome crime for the sake of a novel and much vilified for her efforts.
With this is mind, I read In the Forest with some trepidation. But I was gripped from the first page and read the book within a matter of days.
It tells the story of Mich O’Kane, a young boy who gets shunted from one institution to another. Devoid of any motherly love he grows into a fearsome individual that the locals call the Kinderschreck — a kind of monster — and eventually goes to jail for a serious crime.
Meanwhile Eily Ryan, an unmarried mother, moves to the small town of Cloosh. Here, with her young son Maddy, she sets up home in a remote dilapidated cottage on the edge of the forest, where she can concentrate on her art.
But when O’Kane is released from jail he returns to Cloosh. With no family support and outcast by the locals, he is forced to live in the forest, only appearing in the village when he needs to beg or steal food.
Animal-like in behaviour and thought, he begins stalking Eily. One day, unable to control his sexual fantasies any longer, he abducts Eily and orders her to drive deep into the forest …
There’s no doubt that this book is dark and disturbing. On more than one occasion I felt goosebumps erupt on my skin. But O’Brien never resorts to sensationalism. Her prose is careful, at times clipped, and she moves the story along at an almost annoyingly slow pace, building to the chilling climax slowly but surely.
What I didn’t particularly like was the narrative devices she uses. In my opinion, the story is told from too many divergent and various sources, sometimes in first person, sometimes in third person. While I understand this was probably O’Brien’s attempt to cover all points of view, to demonstrate that the crime was not as straightforward as one might have expected, I thought it hampered the narrative drive.
All in all, In the Forest is an intriguing, atmospheric novel, which is almost Gothic-like in its brooding intensity. Just don’t expect to find yourself falling in love with O’Brien’s work.