Fjällbacka, Sweden, is a quiet place where everybody knows everybody. But that means everybody’s business is fuel for gossip. Helen keeps her head down, knowing the residents still hate her, 30 years after she confessed to the murder of four-year-old Stella when she herself was only 13. Marie, her partner in crime, is a successful actress who used her murky past to open doors. She is back in Fjällbacka to make a film about Ingrid Bergmann. But unlike Helen, she believes any publicity is good publicity.
And now, in shockingly similar circumstances, Nea has gone missing too – another four-year-old girl who lives at the same farm from where Stella disappeared all those years ago.
Detective Patrik Hedstrom and Erika Falck, his author wife, find themselves digging for information on this latest disappearance from different angles. But both will soon discover that residents of their sleepy little town are not all they seem.
Few films need more than two hours to show their story. And few novels need more than 300-400 pages; anything more is padding. At nearly 600 pages, alarm bells rang when I picked up this book. Although the story has merits, and it kept me occupied for far longer than most books, the alarm bells had not rung without reason; The Girl in The Woods is simply too long.
There is so much detail, much of it fluffy, repetitive and irrelevant. The reader meets far too many characters in the first few chapter. It is overwhelming and confusing in places. Yes, most of them have a role to play, but the reader could do without having their endless entourage (dead family, friends and pets) mentioned as well. And although the backstory of Stella’s murder 30 years before is pertinent and pushes the plot forwards, the historical chapters from the 17th century are tenuous at best.
In those historical chapters we meet Elin, an impoverished widow with a young daughter who becomes a servant in her mean sister’s household. It doesn’t take long to work out where this sub-plot is going, and the author could quite easily have portrayed Elin’s tale as a discovered document in one chapter, if she had to include it at all. Moreover, the main character is flat and the plot interrupts what is already a slow-paced read.
The main plot, once the reader has acclimatised to the vast number of characters, is easy to unravel after the first couple of chapters, mainly because the clues are a little heavy handed. And the other little mysteries do not enhance the story.
This book is written in the past tense, third person, omniscient point of view. It hops from character to character within the chapters, which does help to drive the story forward. But the flip-hop is confusing in the first chapters when the reader has not had time to get to know the players sufficiently. And sometimes whose point of view the reader is reading about lacks clarity.
Some of the main characters are well developed, complex and interesting, if a bit stereotyped. Patrik and Erika are easy to get on with. Helen is clearly an abused wife and one can pity her situation, while Marie is the self-entitled actress, an easy character to dislike. The author portrays Karim, a Syrian refugee, and his friends with melodrama, which depreciates their value, but I still found them likeable and easy to connect with. Sam and Jesse, offspring of Helen and Marie, are typical of “there but for the grace of God go I or my children” teenagers, but I do wonder if the end of their journey enriches the story, or if it is there for shock factor. Although this story centres on the disappearance of two little girls, there are far too many other children taking up page space with their predictable behaviour.
This book is 200 pages and one sub-plot too long. But it is a gritty, twisted and intricate story, and the author manages to pull most of the dangling threads together at the end.