Statistically speaking, girls like me don’t come back when guys like Donald Jessup take us.
According to my research, in 88.5% of all abductions, the kid is killed within the first four hours. In 76% of those cases, it’s within the first two hours. So when they found me alive after nearly two days, the reporters called it a miracle.
They liked it even better when they found out Donald Jessup didn’t want me at first. He wanted Liv. But I took her place. Not only did they have a miracle, they had a martyr.
—After the Woods, by Kim Savage
It’s been almost a year since Julia Spunk physically escaped the woods—and her attacker is dead, having committed suicide in prison—but she’s still dealing with the aftermath. Her best friend, Liv—Donald Jessup’s original target, who Julia saved by inadvertently taking her place—wants to brush the whole episode aside because, by her logic, since Julia wasn’t sexually assaulted, the abduction wasn’t really “a big deal.”
Julia wants it to be over, but still needs to make some sort of sense of what happened. So she keeps digging, into Jessup’s past, into similar cases—trying to find meaning in facts and statistics and other forms of concrete information. And then another body is found, and everything she’s turned up suddenly takes on new meaning.
After the Woods got a starred review from Kirkus—in which the reviewer said, among many other lovely things, that it “offers up a mystery wrapped in a psychological breakthrough tied with the bow of lyrical language”—and it has a lot of very definitely praiseworthy elements that I will get to eventually. But this is one of those cases in which ‘lyrical’ is clearly in the eye of the beholder, because sentences like “The canopy shatters fast-dropping light into glittering shards” read more overblown than poetic to me, and while “red-streaked aggies” is a good image for a madman’s eyes, it’s hard to imagine a non-marble-obsessed 16-year-old in 2013 coming up with it.
On occasion, the voice and the dialogue both feel like Savage was going for a noir feel, and sometimes it works, but more often than it comes off as stilted and unlikely and oddly formal, more like a daytime soap or V.C. Andrews. For example, it’s hard to imagine these lines being spoken in casual (if tense) conversation:
“I might as well reveal what I got you, Olivia.”
“On the subject of blood and surprises: in case you were wondering, there was very little. All the gauze I bought sat untouched in my bag.”
(It should be noted that everything I’ve quoted in this column is from the advanced review copy, and so could be different in the final copy.)
The secondary characters are two-dimensional—Liv’s mother is particularly cardboardy—Savage clearly did research about abuse and PTSD and other issues, but much of it is integrated into the narrative via conversational infodump, and the symbolic imagery may as well have a blinking neon arrow pointing at it. There are some problematic aspects regarding Kellen, Julia’s love interest, that are never explored, and while the mystery itself isn’t where the strength of the book lies—I swear, I’m getting to that—it’s worth mentioning that I unraveled it within the first few pages. (That said, the target audience is unlikely to have read quite as many mysteries as I have, so that may not be an issue for all readers.)
As I’ve repeatedly said, there ARE strengths. While the dialogue doesn’t always ring true, the emotions do: Julia is angry, angry, angry, and her fury is both understandable and resonant. Her relationship with Liv is complicated and fraught with tension: Julia loves her best friend, and if she had a do-over, she would do it again, but she still resents Liv for running away and for her strikingly unsympathetic behavior later. There are multiple arcs about friendship here, and they all parallel and complement each other nicely.
Savage does a nice job of showing news as a commodity; showing how both the media and the public regard people in the news with ownership; showing the importance of who frames the narrative, and how it is framed. She does a nice job of portraying a girl grappling with PTSD; of allowing her to lash out, to be (gasp!) unlikable, to express her anger; to explore how cultural gender roles exacerbate that anger and frustration; to show Julia starting off with one sort of strength and slowly grow into not only acknowledging and appreciating that strength, but also acknowledging and appreciating her other, quieter sorts of strength.
Perfect? No. Am I curious to see what Savage does next? Absolutely.
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.