Vanessa Savage’s second book, The Woods, tells the unsettling story of three families, whose lives are intertwined, and two sisters, who need to unearth what happened ten years ago, before they can move on.
For Tess, her older sister Bella is her whole world. She’s smart and beautiful and popular – everything Tess isn’t – and since the death of their mother it’s just been them and their grieving father.
But now a new family has moved into the empty house on the edge of the woods, bringing with them a world of boys and alcohol, and Tess can feel her sister slipping away from her. Until the bodies of two local schoolgirls are found in the woods, and Tess is convinced that this new family has something to hide.
As events threaten to destroy everything they hold dear, Bella and Tess determine to bring the truth to light.
Vanessa Savage had a murder house at the heart of her debut novel and features another house here in The Woods, or on the edge of them, at least. Whether it’s as sinister as that first house, I’ll leave you to decide, although it certainly exerts a pull on both sisters. And yet, even when Dean House becomes a family home, it still emits a feeling of decay and neglect.
There’s a pervading sense of decay and neglect throughout this novel; the walled garden at Dean House is being overtaken by brambles and weeds. Once their mother’s pride and joy, the garden at Tess and Bella’s childhood home is similarly being left to run to seed, while their father tends to their terminally-ill stepmother, Julia, home from hospital now that nothing more can be done for her.
The woods of the title are where the bodies of two local schoolgirls were discovered ten years earlier. And Tess, who has resolutely stayed away from the place and has no memory of certain key past events, increasingly sees her sister Bella covered in mud, blood and leaves from that time when both of them were found in the woods but only Tess was brought out alive.
Death hangs over the characters in this novel, both from the past and now again in the present.
It’s Julia’s terminal illness which serves to reunite the younger members of all three families, bringing them back to see her one last time, out of a sense of duty and with varying degrees of reluctance. And once they are all there, more human remains are discovered, causing past traumatic events and familiar tensions to resurface, for Tess, in particular.
Tess seems to regress most of all the characters to her teenage self while back at her childhood home, or rather she’s the one who’s moved on the least since her sister’s death. She bears the same grudges as she did back then, and harbours the same suspicions of others. Tess carries this through to the present, not allowing for anybody having matured or changed at all, which is childish and petulant of her and can be frustrating at times but is also indicative of the deterioration in her mental health.
There’s a marked discrepancy between how she sees everybody and understands their relationships towards each other and their parents, and the reality. Which is what I enjoyed the most about The Woods. Her perceptions of people and events are continually cast into doubt and challenged, yet the truth about what happened in the woods all those years ago is always tantalisingly close to being revealed but remains just beyond reach until the final pages.
By making me constantly reassess each character and the extent of their involvement in events, past and present, Vanessa Savage kept me engaged throughout. The Woods is an intensely creepy story of siblings, who are craving love or attention while battling hormones, misunderstandings and simmering resentments, and which all plays out against a shifting backdrop of friend and family dynamics and relationships.
The Woods by Vanessa Savage is published by Sphere, an imprint of Little, Brown. It’s published as an audiobook, ebook, hardback and is out now in paperback. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it from Hive instead where every purchase you make helps to support your local independent bookshop.
I have paperback copies of The Woman in the Dark and The Woods to give away. Leave a comment below and the squirrels will pick a winner.