Mary’s entire world is a tiny village surrounded by tall fences. Outside the fences is the Forest of Hands and Teeth, filled with the Unconsecrated. Zombies. Anyone they bite becomes one of them, and fear of the Unconsecrated has ruled the world since the Return. As far as the villagers know, they are the last living people in the world. The rules of their tiny society are strict, and above all, they are ruled by the Sisters, a religious order that controls every aspect of life, and hides what could be vital knowledge from the people. Their society is about order and commitment and rules, but Mary dreams of more. She dreams of the wider world, and of love, which comes second to duty and commitment in the village (if it is to be considered at all). She dreams of seeing the ocean, just like the picture her mother used to show her, a place without the Unconsecrated that reaches as far as the eye can see.
The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a beautifully written book. From page one, I was simultaneously marveling at the gorgeous, eloquent words, wanting to slow down and savor them, and holding my breath, racing to find out what would happen, in the end, to Mary, the strong, determined heroine. My one complaint with this book is that Mary is so real, so believably conflicted and wonderful, that the other characters were eclipsed and felt largely like paper dolls characterized only by their interactions with Mary; however, this is an acceptable consequence of the consuming first-person narration.
It is dark and captivating and ultimately hopeful (and devastating). It’s about a lot more than zombies; to me, this felt first and foremost like a survival story, but it wasn’t just about the actual survival of the characters, but also the survival of Mary’s soul. The events that set off the story have Mary deeply questioning her faith and her world and her dreams, and the struggle to hold on to her dreams is as evident and important as the struggle not to be lost to the Unconsecrated. This is very much a complex, multilayered story, and honestly, I think I’d need to read it at least once more (slowly) in order to fully soak it all in.
There is a romance here, too, but as two corners of this love triangle are secondary characters, they are not entirely real, and while Mary’s perspective on the romance was interesting, I didn’t feel like this book really was much of a romance. The cover blurbs that say it is are a bit misleading.
The ending was open, and I hope there’s more to come. Whatever Carrie Ryan next writes will be wonderful, as the lyrical writing style that makes her debut shine would make even the most trite story into lovely reading. I still need to reread this book at some point in the future to take it all in, but I’ll say right now that it’s amazing. Also, I am going to have nightmares about the Unconsecrated.
Five out of six windows: