Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Fifteen-year-old twins Maisy and Duncan Mitcham have always had each other. Until the fateful day in the wood . . .
One night in 1960, the twins awake to find their father pulling their screaming mother from the house. She is to be committed to an asylum. It is, so their father insists, for her own good.
It's not long before they, too, are removed from their London home and sent to Nightingales - a large house deep in the New Forest countryside - to be watched over by their cold-hearted grandmother, Mrs Mitcham. Though they feel abandoned and unloved, at least here they have something they never had before - freedom.
The twins are left to their own devices, to explore, find new friends and first romances. That is until the day that Duncan doesn't come back for dinner. Nor does he return the next day. Or the one after that.
When the bodies of other young boys are discovered in the surrounding area the police appear to give up hope of finding Duncan alive. With Mrs Mitcham showing little interest in her grandson's disappearance, it is up to Maisy to discover the truth. And she knows just where to start. The woman who lives alone in the wood about whom so many rumours abound. A woman named Grace Deville.
Incredibly The Woman in the Wood is the 25th novel from my favourite author Lesley Pearse. Lesley is a master storyteller who has the ability to weave a story that once you pick the book up it becomes unbearable to be away from it once you get stuck into it. You'd think having written so many books that the ideas mightn't flow like they once did or the calibre of writing and the storylines may dip but I found this has never been the case. With each book Lesley's writing gets stronger and stronger and for many years now she has been that author for me that I would buy the book without even looking at the blurb or cover, the fact that is it something written by the brilliant Lesley Pearse is enough for me. It's great to have such confidence in an author that you know you can always rely on an absorbing story waiting to be read between the covers. Lesley is always guaranteed to deliver and with this new book it was no different and the fact that I was annoyed when the outside world came calling and I had to go and do something is testament to the fact The Woman in the Wood is another riveting read that is sure to top the best seller lists.
The book opens in West London in 1960 with what I would term quite a dramatic opening, Maisy Mitcham and her twin brother Duncan aged 15 wake in the dead of night to discover her parents arguing. Alastair, their father is trying to persuade their mother Lily that she must leave the house to receive the treatment she so desperately needs. Lily has not been well for a very long time and she is not the mother the children have vague memories of. Soon Lily is taken away by ambulance yet Maisy and Duncan feel an injustice has been done and are confrontational with their father. Alastair is a stern man, he is not violent or abusive but there has always been that aloofness, that distance between himself and his children and with the twins about to be sent away to the New Forest, that chasm will only grow ever wider. Soon the twins find their lives turned upside down as they attempt to become accustomed to living with their grandmother Violet who they have only ever had fleeting contact with. She lives near the New Forest in a house called Nightingales and has such an intimidating presence, a brusque, stern outlook on all things. It's more or less left to housekeeper Janice to take over the care of the twins. Janice was in sharp contrast to Violet, she was kind and full of life, warmth and fun. The reader could easily see that having Maisy and Duncan bringing new life to the house made up for the fact she had never had children of her own.
It takes time for Maisy and Duncan to readjust to life in a new house and area. Duncan like the outdoors and exploring and they soon became familiar with the forest. Even though they were twins Maisy and Duncan couldn't have been more different. I felt Duncan had a more freer, relaxed attitude to life but yet had that vulnerable side to him. If there was ever any trouble it was Maisy he would look to for resolution or even comfort. Maisy seemed older than Duncan. She had a good, solid head on her shoulders and she was more able to read between the lines surrounding her mother's stay in hospital. She was wary of both her father and grandmother. Yet on the other hand she was willing to accept the situation she found herself in and was prepared to be the adult, the one who was responsible and dealt with problems on behalf of both herself and Duncan. As the story developed time and time again Maisy showed incredible strength of character, such ingenuity and a passion for never giving up and not believing everything at first hand. She kept fighting and wanting answers. She continuously dug deeper and never was content with just the basic facts. Maisy's character was brilliantly written and one readers won't forget in a hurry due to her courage, strength and unwavering faith when all the odds were against her.
I did initially find the pace of the story quite slow once the twins had moved to be with their grandmother, but on reflection there was a lot of setting up going on and subtle hints being dropped that I wasn't clever enough to catch on to. I wondered what significance did the title 'The Woman in the Wood ' have? It refers to a woman Grace Deville who prefers solitude, peace and to be on her own. She lives in basic conditions with her dog in a shack in the woods. Local residents believer her to be a witch who brings bad luck and is not good news at all. But Duncan sees a kindred spirit and befriends her. Grace was a very closed book. Only the bare essentials were revealed about her until absolutely necessary and it was pitched perfectly as if we had known too much about her earlier on in the story all the revelations wouldn’t have had the same impact and I wouldn't have felt the connection and understanding between Grace and another character.
What made the pace of the story pick up was the sudden and unexplained disappearance of Duncan. One day he fails to return home from a bike ride. Maisy's suspicions are raised but of course Violet is ever complacent believing he will return when he feels like it. But a twins instinct is renowned and Maisy feels something much worse and sinister has occurred. I felt every bit of Maisy's pain as she attempts to cope with the loss of her brother. She was never going to give up until she found him and had all the answers. I enjoyed the fact the story had so many layers to it as just as you believed one aspect of the book was resolved and you began to wonder what else could be in store given it appears everything has been tied up yet there are plenty more pages to be read. To this end several times over Lesley turned the story on its head and the layers ever so slowly began to be peeled back. What awaits us beneath the surface is a story that at times was hard to read but these scenes and descriptions made the book the thrilling read it was. Lesley never shied away from the harsh realities or brutal descriptions and although I was repulsed at what was unfolding it added grit and bags full of emotion to the overall storyline. I became ever more deeply invested in the outcome for all the characters and The Woman in the Wood became a real page turner which had me on the edge of my seat desperate for answers and resolution but in other ways I was loathe for such a tense and powerful read to end.
I loved every bit of this story, the twists and turns, surprises and revelations just kept coming and I never saw any of them. I felt I was really taken on a journey with Maisy and co and I never wanted the journey to conclude. Lesley dealt with a harsh and unforgiving topic but managed to intertwine it to perfection with plenty of emotion and a deep exploration of the relationship between the twins and their father. It proved beyond all doubt that first appearances can always be deceptive but one always has to trust their gut instinct and above all else never give up the fight for what you believe in. When everyone else around you is filled with doubt that one grain of hope you have clung to should be kept at the forefront of your mind. I envy people the read of this book or if it is your first book by Lesley Pearse I envy you even more so. I flew through the book in two sittings and regret I didn't savour it for even longer but when a book is this good you just have to keep turning the pages.
Lesley Pearse is an author whose books I love more than anything and this book has proven that to me even more. With deep reluctance I read the last line and closed the book and placed it on my bookshelves along side the 24 other compelling books Lesley has written. They all have pride of place on my bookshelves and I look forward to many many more to come. Congratulations Lesley on another fantastic book in The Woman in the Wood.
Many thanks to Ed PR for my copy of The Woman in the Wood to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.