ARC Review – ‘What Lies In The Woods’ by Kate Alice Marshall

TITLE: What Lies In The Woods
AUTHOR: Kate Alice Marshall
GENRE: Thriller/Mystery
WORD/PAGE COUNT: 336 pages (hardcover)
PUBLICATION DETAILS: by Macmillan Books on January 17th, 2023
RRP$49.99 AUD (hardcover)

Blurb from Goodreads:

They were eleven when they sent a killer to prison . . .
They were heroes . . . but they were liars.

Naomi Shaw used to believe in magic. Twenty-two years ago, she and her two best friends, Cassidy and Olivia, spent the summer roaming the woods, imagining a world of ceremony and wonder. They called it the Goddess Game. The summer ended suddenly when Naomi was attacked. Miraculously, she survived her seventeen stab wounds and lived to identify the man who had hurt her. The girls’ testimony put away a serial killer, wanted for murdering six women. They were heroes.

And they were liars.

For decades, the friends have kept a secret worth killing for. But now Olivia wants to tell, and Naomi sets out to find out what really happened in the woods—no matter how dangerous the truth turns out to be.

What Lies In The Woods is a childhood secret concealed by trauma, deception and despair. It’s a gruesome discovery improbably folded into a fanciful kids’ game that makes innocent girls complicit in something darker than they realize. It’s the scene of a horrifying attack that causes ripple effects still impacting on people over two decades later and setting in motion something unstoppable and deadly.

It’s the debut adult novel by Kate Alice Marshall who proves to be just as accomplished in this arena as she has been with her previous YA horror books. This time around, she steers away from the supernatural eeriness that’s become her trademark and instead delves deeper into the horrors of the human psyche with richer and more complex characterization on offer. This isn’t to suggest that YA novels lack complexity, but there is a lot more to mine from a character in her thirties with a whole host of mental and behavioural issues stemming from surviving a brutal attack in her childhood! Our protagonist Naomi self-medicates with alcohol and a destructive taste in relationships to repress memories she believes are better off left unexamined, but the death of the man she helped to convict inevitably unearths hidden truths and skeletons buried in her youth.

Some readers may be impatient with the slow-burn beginning which explores Naomi’s present-day circumstances and how the stabbing has shaped her personality, however this works very effectively in fleshing out her character as well as revealing how she will make self-sabotaging decisions that aren’t in her best interests. Why she feels the need to punish herself is just one of the many mysteries we encounter in this book. Naomi may not be the most likeable character, but despite her prickly distrust and ever-present cynicism, the walls she has put up around herself are only too understandable. I particularly want to highlight the sensitivity with which the author treats Naomi’s coping mechanisms – for instance, a lesser book would’ve taken salacious pleasure in describing her casual hook-ups and depicted them in titillating detail, but the focus here is always on what Naomi’s actions reveal about her state of mind instead of judging or glorifying her behaviour.

Flashbacks are regularly interspersed throughout the story to introduce or further develop central characters and dynamics plus drop hints about the secrets the girls have been keeping for years. Sometimes flashbacks can be a detrimental narrative tool when they pull the reader away in the middle of an action scene or meaty character moment, but in this book, they’re incorporated with care and precision to hook our attention and dole out tidbits of information relating to the ongoing mysteries.

Genre-savvy readers are liable to predict at least one of the reveals, but the joy of What Lies In The Woods is the masterfully diabolical plot layered with red herrings that convinces you beyond doubt of a particular fact only to blindside you with incontrovertible proof that establishes the exact opposite. The blurb may fool you into thinking there is only a black-and-white reading of the central dilemma it poses – did the girls lie about identifying a serial killer and if so, does that mean the man they put in jail is innocent? But we’re in the hands of a phenomenal storyteller who takes a seemingly simple premise and weaves a thick, tangled web to ensnare the audience with unreliable testimonies, ulterior motives and enough twists and turns to leave us stranded in the middle of the woods right alongside Naomi, lost and desperately searching for answers.

Kate Alice Marshall shows she can’t put a foot wrong with this confident debut in the adult thriller genre, spinning an intricately compelling tale of friendship and magic, sorrow and betrayal wrapped up in a suspenseful murder mystery. What Lies In The Woods examines the cost of survival and the scars that childhood leaves both physically and emotionally with vividly drawn characters, effortlessly polished prose and a brooding, immersive setting.  If you haven’t discovered this brilliant author before, I urge you to pick up her previous books ASAP while you wait for release day.

Disclaimer: digital copy provided free from the publisher for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

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