Published by Farrar Straus and Giroux on February 23rd, 2016
Would you risk your life to save your best friend?
Julia did. When a paroled predator attacked Liv in the woods, Julia fought back and got caught. Liv ran, leaving Julia in the woods for a terrifying 48 hours that she remembers only in flashbacks. One year later, Liv seems bent on self-destruction, starving herself, doing drugs, and hooking up with a violent new boyfriend. A dead girl turns up in those same woods, and Julia’s memories resurface alongside clues unearthed by an ambitious reporter that link the girl to Julia’s abductor. As the devastating truth becomes clear, Julia realizes that after the woods was just the beginning.
I’m a big believer in knowing as little about a thriller as possible before going into reading it, and so that’s what I did with After the Woods. I’m really glad I did it that way too, because I was able to slowly discover and unravel by myself some of the things that were mentioned in the synopsis. Basically, I knew this was about an abduction but I had no idea about the friendship elements in this book. And I had no idea how dark it was going to be.
The first thing I have to say is that the writing was gorgeous. It was poetic and beautiful, but at the same time quite grounded inside a teen’s head. I marked off several passages to take down later and read and reread. (In fact, it took me three days to read this mostly because I read something on nearly every page at least twice.) The book also had an incredibly strong voice – much more so than many other thrillers I’ve read before. Where the genre is very plot-focused – and I love it for that – After the Woods took great care with its characters’ voices. Julia had her own special brand of snark and sarcasm that was at once ornery teenager and hilarious without trying too hard.
This thriller has a very different setup from those I’ve read before. Usually we have a murder mystery, with the main character clearly marked as Next on the killer’s list. But After the Woods kind of turned this trope on its head. Our main character, Julia, came First. The book still opens with a dead body, but this is nearly a year after Julia and her friend Liv were attacked in the woods. This new body brings on a boatload of repressed memories and all the things Julia thought she knew are becoming unraveled. The mystery now is not about who the killer is – we know that from the start – but rather, what the fuck is up with Liv’s weird behavior.
And so this is where the book got really, really dark. I think I figured out Liv’s initial actions pretty early, like about halfway through. I knew what she did, but I didn’t know why. And the why was the worst part. I don’t think I’ve seen many YAs plunge to these depths, but it was very twisted. Very surprising and delicious and twisted. And Julia’s response to it all was magnificent. Throughout the course of the book you see Julia slowly descend into darkness, slowly become unhinged – and it’s amazing because it’s subtle and in it’s in the very writing itself. By the last quarter she is ripping out her hair and letting out these primal screams. The whole thing is very unsettling.
Now, the reason for knocking it down to four instead of five, because by all accounts, this is the type of book that ends up on my favorites lists. This mostly had to do with Liv’s mother. View Spoiler »Liv’s mom was a total narcissist; she was mentally and emotionally abusive toward Liv, verging into physically abusive territory. Now, if you know anything about this type of behavior, you know that the narcissistic individual is often very subtle and it becomes hard to pinpoint exactly where the abuse is. It’s what makes it so hard to deal with these people. However, Deborah, Liv’s mother, was just way over the top. She literally told her daughter multiple times that she was difficult to love. The other ways her disorder manifested were just… like I said, over the top. She was a cartoon villain almost; you could see her doing that maniacal laugh Cruella used basically. It was just too much to be believable. « Hide Spoiler The other problem I had was that we had a THREE PAGE monologue from the “bad guy” where they laid out allllll their evil plans. I hate this kind of thing and I find it lazy. There are better ways to lay out all the details of their wrongdoings. I know it’s more work, but come on.
All in all, I highly recommend After the Woods. If you’re a fan of Stephanie Kuehn and other twisted, frightening YA thrillers, than you must pick this up. It will leave you guessing until the very end.