Book review: What the Woods Keep by Katya de Becerra

(cover image courtesy Allen & Unwin)

 

When there are teddy bears involved, going out in the woods today, or any day for that matter, sounds like an altogether delightful undertaking.

Not so though if you’re Hayden Bellatrix Holland, possessor of a kickass creative middle name, a distinct lack of warm-and-fuzzy teddies, a fabulously cool housemate called Del and an inheritance that extends into all kinds of dark places beyond the manor house she inherits from her long-missing, presumed dead, mother.

For the Brooklynite who is readying herself for a life beyond the therapy that has defined her troubled school years, the woods soon come to be filled with all the things she has been seeking to hide away from and which everyone from her father (who has a bit of a divided agenda but for all the right reasons) to her therapist are adamant don’t exist at all.

At the start of this highly-engrossing debut novel What the Woods Keep, which possesses one of the most arresting covers of 2018, from Australian author (by way of Russia, USA and Peru) Katya  De Becerra, everything is looking decidedly on the up for once-troubled young Hayden.

“The cold grip of an invisible hand squeezes my heart and doesn’t let go. The whitewashed walls of Doreen’s office waltz around me in a drunken, merry circle while my brain processes what I’ve just hard.
The Manor? Promise? Mom’s darkest secret? Her burden?” (P. 17)

It’s her birthday, French-Senegalese force of gloriously retro-clothed nature Del is her best friend and festivities-planning guru and the troubled years following her mother’s death and expulsion from school at age 8, seem to finally be behind her.

Sure, she’s not especially close to her dad, a once-respected college professor who has had his tenure revoked because of his apparently crackpot theories about other dimensions and muon-fuelled portals through which a mythical Germanic warrior race the Nibelungs will ride to conquer a defenceless-humanity, but she’s dealt with worse and is eager to put the past behind her.

Until, of course, it comes racing up to meet her, cruelly reviving the trauma of her mother’s death, playing with and challenging her decidedly rationalist, scientific view of the world and dragging her to places, including the aforementioned dark and threatening woods around Promise, Colorado, to which she most definitely does not want to go.

It’s not quite the birthday celebration or new life she had planned and it’s going to get way, way weirder before it stands even a hope in hell of getting as bright and shiny as she’d previously hoped.

 

Katya de Becerra (image courtesy official Katya de Becerra Twitter account)

 

So far, so teenager finding out her life and destiny are not her own, but the brilliance of What the Woods Keep is that it takes those well-worn tropes and goes to town with them, with De Becerra reinventing them, compellingly, as her own in a novel that is never less than deeply, page-turningly readable.

It helps that the protagonist, and indeed all the characters are so fulsomely and immediately well-realised.

From the opening pages, you get a strong sense of how much Hayden has gone through and yet how willing she is still to take on a world she sees as full of possibilities; she is strong, forthright, intelligent, with each chapter a musing on some scientific line of thinking that neatky dovetails and enrichs with the following always-gripping part of the narrative.

With each chapter resonant with Hayden’s well-considered point of view, and her willingness to subvert and ridicule the usual responses you’d expect from someone having all their rationalist assumptions challenged, seemingly all at once – some of her pithy oneliner-worthy observations are absolute gems, adroitly breaking up the ever-escalating tension – we have a heroine who isn’t content to simply go along with things.

In a storyline that is finely-paced as they come, save for the ending which though mesmerising intense feels a little rushed, Hayden is one sassy protagonist who doesn’t take crap from anyone but is refreshingly and humanly vulnerable in an immediately-accessible way.

“Coming as a surprising revelation, I find that a growing part of me feeds on a meager hope that something extraordinary will happen when I give in to this mystery that is my mom and follow the instructions, achieving some kind of personal apotheosis in the process. But the rational part of me insists that it is highly unlikely that anything unusual will occur and in the end I’ll just look and feel stupid.” (P. 187)

The other great strength of a novel that is both fantastically magically real and yet grounded in the most normal and human of ways, an impressive feat of storytelling however you look at it, is the way De Beccera keeps the revelations coming in a way that feels neither rushed nor Lost-like parsimonious.

It’s tempting in novels of this ilk to throw all the revelations all at once at the reader, or on the other extreme to be so tight with them that both you and the protagonist are at risk of falling asleep at the narrative wheel, but What the Woods Keep dances merrily and appealingly creepily between these two polar opposites, giving both Hayden and readers a chance to keep pace with the great seismic changes slowly and engagingly taking place.

The mystery that unfurls is enticing and rich with mythic lore, but also very down to earth and real, which is important given that we are supposed to be on a journey with someone finding out that many of her assumptions about life, long grounded in objectivity and scientific truth, are not even close to be on the money.

What the Woods Keep moves along at just the right rate of “OMG! Gee whiz” moments, neither sensationalist or too slowburning, offering up a meeting with fate and destiny that feels like it could actually take place with a protagonist who reacts every bit as exactly as we might, even in the midst of the mindblowing final act.

As debut novels go, What the Woods Keep is a triumph, full of captivatingly rich and well-realised characters, a snappy-first person narrative, cracklingly-good dialogue, a little romance (that is never over done), a beguiling mix of realities banal and extraordinary and the kind of fast-paced readability that is invigoratingly intelligent, alive and possessed of equal parts menace and possibility, and a scintillating sense that nothing, in the woods or elsewhere, will ever be the same again.

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