The Woman in the Wood by Lesley Pearse

In brief: Twins Maisy and Duncan are sent to live with their grandmother after their mother is taken into care. Everything goes well until Duncan goes missing…

The good: Surprising and unputdownable in places.

The not-so-good: Dialogue a bit stilted at times.

Why I chose it: Have never read Lesley Pearse before, thanks to Penguin Australia for the opportunity to do so.

Year: 2017

Pages: 387

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Penguin)

Setting: England

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

I have always thought that Lesley Pearse writes ‘women’s fiction’ (even though I hate that term). I was completely mistaken on reading The Woman in the Wood – it’s a kind of mystery/thriller combination that is sometimes pretty blunt about what has happened to the characters. Don’t be put off by the given – the woman in the wood (Grace) is a key character but this story is ultimately about twins Maisy and Duncan.

The twins are in their teens, living what they think to be a fairly average life in 1960s London. Their father is cold and hardly ever home. Their mother lives in her bed and is confused most of the time. But one night her father organises for the twins’ mother to move to an asylum. The twins are shocked but ultimately can’t do anything. Their father then announces that they will be moving to the country to live with their grandmother, who the twins don’t like (she’s a cold character too). But living at Nightingales allows them much more freedom – the ability to be tutored by the kind Mr Dove and housekeeper Janice is their surrogate mother. They can explore the woods on their bikes and make new friends. Grace is one of those people, but she’s not too keen on making friends. She’s reclusive with her own history to deal with. Somehow, Duncan penetrates her icy façade. Meanwhile, Maisy is busy making friends and falling in love. But then Duncan goes missing…could he have fallen victim to the serial killer taking boys on England’s south coast?

I would say that this book is divided into two halves – the twins’ life up until Duncan goes missing and what happens after. The first half is more coming of age story, the second is a mystery/thriller which doesn’t end when you expect it. There are plenty of surprises and twists in the second half that I didn’t expect! Sometimes Pearse goes into detail of the killer and his torture which I found mildly uncomfortable (he’s one sick weirdo). What I did like is the exploration of what happened and the feelings around it, guided by Grace and Mr Dove who are much wiser than others think. Both scarred by their own experiences, they help the twins make sense of what has happened. Grace is also quite the heroine at times, despite what the local people in the village think!

One thing that did take me out of the world the novel created was the dialogue. At times, it’s very stilted and proper. I found it hard to believe that teenage twins would speak in such a proper fashion, especially when impassioned by anger! The twins’ father Alastair also spoke about feelings in such a proper way that I found it hard to believe he was truly becoming warmer and more forthcoming, rather than spinning a line. I do think that the action in the second half made up for it though. There were times when I couldn’t stop reading. I just felt that I couldn’t leave the twins and Grace hanging!

The characterisation was well done. Maisy is a little fireball, while Janice, Grace and Mr Dove are the kind ones. The twins’ grandmother was the perfect cold woman who occasionally melted – she was harsh but unintentionally amusing. Both Grace and Mr Dove had fascinating backstories that I would have liked to read some more of. (Plus I want to know if Janice and Mr Dove ever got together!)

Next time I read a Lesley Pearse novel I’ll go into it with no preconceptions whatsoever and enjoy the wild ride.

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