Title: In the Night Wood
Author: Dale Bailey
Date of Publication: October 9, 2018
Publisher: John Joseph Adams/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
When he was just a young boy, Charles Hayden discovered a mysterious Victorian children’s book called “In the Night Wood”. Years later, Charles is a failing scholar who is obsessed with the book that so greatly influenced his life. His wife is a distant relative of Caedmon Hollow, the author of “In the Night Wood”. When she inherits Hollow’s home, he moves there with her to run away from their shared tragic past–the death of their six-year-old daughter. Charles hopes that he can use this opportunity write a biography of Caedmon Hollow. Digging deep into the past is never a good idea, however, and it quickly becomes apparent that “In the Night Wood” was inspired by the forest surrounding Hollow’s home. But how much is truth and how much is fiction?
The writing style is one of the book’s greatest strengths, and Caedmon Hollow’s Victorian-style house, the woods surrounding it, and the neighbouring town are all beautifully described. However, I felt that the story somehow managed to feel too rushed, while very little actually happens. The story doesn’t have much substance. In the Night Wood is quite short, but based on content, it could have easily been a novella or even a short story.
The major appeal factor of this book is that Bailey has created his own legend. The story of “In the Night Wood” with the horned king and a little girl named Laura–a little girl who is so similar in both name and appearance to Charles’ lost daughter. However, Hollow’s book is not quite developed enough to my liking, and instead Bailey pulls from Shakespeare and other well-known writers throughout history for later plot points, including a cipher that Charles must decrypt.
I didn’t particularly enjoy this book. Charles Hayden is a most despicable main character. He hasn’t learned from past mistakes. He cheated on his wife, and on his daughter’s birthday, his “secret birthday gift” to his now six-year-old daughter was that he was going to break up with his mistress. What a wonderful present. You’re too kind. This would all be fair, but in present day he’s almost cheating on his wife again with another woman, another scholar with a similar name. He didn’t learn from his mistake, which would also be okay, if he learned his lesson before the book ended. He didn’t. There’s no “I should have learned” moment or time when karma comes to bite him in the ass. He doesn’t get his comeuppance, which makes an unlikable character such as this one inexcusable. He’s also sexist, not only the way in which he views his wife, but in the way he views other women. The female scholar he works with on Hollows’ biography is said to have her “prickles” because she won’t allow him to patronize him. He likes her despite her “prickles”. Ugh!
Throughout the story Charles Hayden reflects on his daughter’s tragic death and how he feels responsible. The way he says it makes you think that he isn’t actually responsible, that it’s just an inflated level of survivor’s guilt. A way for Bailey to make an unlikable character have some substance. Then it’s revealed how the daughter actually died. Charles is 100% responsible for her death, which makes his woe-is-me attitude even more disgusting. In the plot line of the story, a local child has been kidnapped. Charles doesn’t react beyond how you or I would react to the thought of someone else’s child being kidnapped, despite the fact that he literally went through the experience of losing his daughter less than a year before. He should have had empathy for the parents of the missing child. He should have–at the very least–had it remind him of his own lost daughter and bring him to shed a single tear down his cheek. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure Charles is human.
The unlikability of Charles Hayden is exacerbated by the fact that his wife, Erin, isn’t well fleshed out. She’s grieving her lost daughter. That’s basically all we know about her. She doesn’t do much else except for wonder if her husband is cheating on her again once they move to Caedmon Hollow’s home. It’s actually mentioned at one point that Charles can’t leave her because he needs access to the house she inherited. I repeat, “Ugh”.
This book has numerous intellectual discussions; however they’re mostly about things I’ve heard about a million times before–quotes like “Murder most foul” by Shakespeare, a definition of “automatic writing”, the story of Oedipus, and a brief mention of Occam’s Razor, to name a few.
I recommend this book to those who want to read a book with a lot of literary references and a strong sense of place–the old Hollow House is beautifully described, as is the dark and treacherous woods that surround it. If you do decide to read this, try not to let an extremely unlikable main character who doesn’t grow or get what’s coming to him interfere with your enjoyment of the story (like I clearly did).
*Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Netgalley for the advanced reader copy*
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