Emily’s dad is accused of killing a teenage girl in the woods. Emily is sure he’s innocent, but struggles to work out what actually happened that night. That is, until she crosses paths with Damon, the boyfriend of the dead girl. Maybe they could help each other? But Damon has his own secrets about the dangerous games that are being played in the dark.
I’m a big fan of books that feel a bit different to expectations. In The Killing Woods, I was expecting a young adult murder mystery, with teens attempting to solve what the police are having trouble working out. What I got was something far more subtle, delicate yet powerful, otherworldly and dangerous.
The Killing Woods plays on our most basic instincts about forest and wilderness. Everyone knows, somehow, that while the “woods are lovely, dark and deep”, they’re also somewhere where all bets are off – anything could happen and sometimes does, even murder and magic.
“while the “woods are lovely, dark and deep”, they’re also somewhere where all bets are off”
Lucy Christopher expertly ramps up the tension throughout this novel, building our view of the woods as a strange, forbidding place, full of hidden spaces and mysterious events. This begins immediately as, in the opening chapter, Emily’s father walks in from the nighttime, stormy woodland carrying the body of the murder victim. Straight away, we’re invited to question what has taken place, how has she died and who may have committed the murder. Christopher’s creation of place and setting is extremely effective without being intrusive, and the oppressive, tense atmosphere naturally follows.
Emily is a wonderful protagonist; she’s clever and brave, while still clearly vulnerable and damaged by her father’s arrest, as well as his ordeal following his experiences as a soldier. We discover that he has been involved in an incident while on active service in which a young girl was killed and has been honourably discharged as a result. However, he’s also been traumatised; Emily and her mother have been trying to learn how to live with him ever since his return. I’ve met many young people whose family members have been members of the Armed Forces so this was a fascinating, if fictional, insight into an extremely difficult situation and just what family members might go through when a parent develops PTSD.
It’s not just through PTSD that the effects of combat permeate the lives of the characters. Damon’s father never returned from his tour of duty, due to an IED. There are tall fences topped with barbed wire demarcating the boundaries of the garrison compound. And Damon and his gang are playing a dangerous game in the woods which started life as training for their own entry into the army. While reading, I was reminded of how everpresent conflict is at the moment, and has been for the last twenty years – have young people growing up in the UK currently ever known a time when British troops haven’t been in action somewhere around the world? Coping with the fallout from this is a subject that’s rarely covered explicitly in young adult fiction, which seems odd given how much a part of life it’s become. In terms of sheer realism, I thought Christopher’s honest, grimy depiction of teenage life – fraught relationships, substances, the high street on a Friday night – was expertly managed.
I also loved the more otherworldly aspect of The Killing Woods. The game that Damon’s gang play is risky, mysterious and seems to feed off the power of the woodland wilderness. There’s the unusual, wild landscape of the area itself, with crags and drops, and Emily’s father’s strange hidden bunker, full of leaves, candles and scrawl-covered walls. There’s also the drawings he used to produce, which prove to be key in solving the puzzle of the murder; animals, in his pictures, have the eyes and the characteristics of people. This motif really sparked my imagination, making me think of fairytales and transformation myths brought right into the twenty-first century, while also tapping into the power and untamable energy of the wild.
The Killing Woods is a bewitching combination of realism, fairytale and basic human instinct mixed with a fast-plotted murder mystery – it can’t fail to grip teenage readers and adults alike.
The Killing Woods is available in paperback from Chicken House, for £7.99