In a Dark Wood by Amanda Craig

DATE FINISHED: July 18th, 2012 

RATED: **** 

SYNOPSIS:  Benedick is miserable: recently divorced, acting career in the doldrums, at war with his father, and barely able to look after himself, let alone his two young children (who ex-wife Georgie keeps insisting spend time with him). Taking refuge in the home of Ruth, the woman who raised him as one of her own, Benedick suddenly realises he can remember almost nothing about his real mother, who committed suicide when he was six years old. Inspired by a book of fairy tales written and illustrated by Laura, he embarks upon a quest to discover more about her, whether she was mad as many of her ‘friends’ seem to claim, and what drove her beyond the brink.

THOUGHTS:  In the sheer unlikeability of lead character Benedick, Craig sets herself for a potentially huge downfall – he is irritating, whiny, hypocritical, rude, quite simply unpleasant. Those readers who force themselves beyond this, however, will be rewarded by a story that discovers unexpected pathways and diversions through the dark woods of the title.

At first, I found the switches between scenes a little choppy, and this combined with the focus on dialogue gave a slightly televisual feel. Craig also has the unfortunate habit of occasionally overstating the obvious: “Most artists have something they desperately want to communicate yet also need to keep hidden. Sometimes they don’t even know what it is. Perhaps it’s that which makes them what they are.” However, once I settled into Craig’s style, I was able to put my initial petty quibbles aside. Laura’s fairy tales are re-told in full, and this is the first glimpse of Craig’s capabilities – stories which are easily on a par with any other re-imagined fairy tales I have read. These are interspersed between very recognisable observations of human nature, as well as such vividly down to earth imagery as: “Several cats were lolling around like dollops of jellied fur”.

Although Benedick and his increasingly manic behaviour is manifestly unlikeable, Laura (apparently based on Sylvia Plath) is harder to grasp – a glamorous and enigmatic figure who provokes strong reactions amongst her bohemian Primrose Hill ‘friends’, none of whom really seem to have known her at all. Was she unbalanced or was she literally driven mad? We catch only glimpses of her personality, and the pervading sense of mystery is what drives the reader on, as well as Benedick to America to find her family, and perhaps some greater ‘truth’. But it is the stories and illustrations within North of Nowhere which provide the greatest insight into the workings of Laura’s mind, interpreting (mostly lesser known) fairy tales from various traditional sources in subtly original and semi-autobigraphical ways. Throughout, Benedick identifies with his mother, but one wonders how much of his affinity with her is merely projection of his own clearly troubled mind. Ultimately, the connections are all unravelled.

As the cover suggests, this is a story based on a story nestled within stories – it is about how our lives and those around us are interlinked, with stories told and re-told to suit our innumerable needs and circumstances. Despite Craig’s neat, happily-ever-after ending, one is left to wonder about the future repercussions of all that has unfolded: we have been led through one dark wood already, and seen exactly where the paths of genetics and circumstance can lead…

FOLLOWING ON:  The confusion of myth and real life reminds me of A Summer of Drowning by John Burnside.  The style of writing, depiction of an arty London society, and the lottery of genetic inheritance reminds me more of The Hearts and Lives of Men by Fay Weldon.


8 responses to “In a Dark Wood by Amanda Craig

  1. A July 22, 2012 at 7:05 pm

    I think i forgot to put a comment here, that i would like to win one of the books 🙂

  2. Lindsay July 25, 2012 at 6:04 pm

    Thank you for your fab review of this one, and for introducing me to it. I love the cover design, and like how that fits in with the structure of the story.

    • tanglecrafts July 25, 2012 at 6:25 pm

      Thank you for entering the competition, and good luck! Unfortunately the hardback edition does not have the same cover design…

  3. Clare B August 7, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    Thank you for your review and for the book giveaway. You’ve inspired me to read even if I’m not lucky enough to win a copy. Thank you

  4. Sharon August 8, 2012 at 10:29 pm

    Sounds like an interesting book – I’m off to enter your giveaway!

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