NR: Body in the Woods

I read Sarah Lotz’s first novel written under her own name, The Three, when it came out but nothing since until now.

With husband Iain away on work and son Jake at university, Claire is alone in her woodland cottage with dog Manchee when old friend Dean turns up in the middle of the night. There’s a dead body in the boot of his car and he wants Claire to help him bury it in the woods. Because of past favours, she feels obliged to help him. But in the days after guilt eats away at Claire, who goes without sleep and finds her efforts at gardening defeated by a mysterious black mould. And it soon becomes obvious that Dean has been somewhat economical with the truth. Exactly whose is the Body in the Woods?

This is a very simple idea, but Lotz milks it for all its worth and produces an agreeable and eminently readable novella, one that has echoes of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”. Her depiction of a small rural community, where gossip is the lifeblood of whatever social interaction takes place, is spot on, with the people captured perfectly, particularly for the primacy dogs have in their lives. Similarly, the woods are an idyllic place, until the presence of a dead body taints them for Claire, and this sickness/corruption that she feels seems to carry over into every aspect of Claire’s life, manifested in the form of the black mould that thwarts her gardening efforts and the never-ending growth of nettles. It’s a case of the world reflecting morality, though we don’t know how much of this is actually taking place and how much is simply Claire’s imagination. What is obvious is that this incident with the body has brought to a head many issues in her life, as reflected in the story’s unsettling final scene.

While most of the characters are done well, Claire and Dean stand out. Claire meets him through friendship with wife Mae, and the couple help her out during a bad time in her life. Although they never become lovers, you sense that Claire courts his interest and there is an element of betrayal in her clandestine meetings with him innocent as she wants us to think they are. This in turn, along with her isolation from son Jake and distancing of husband Iain, contributes to the mental malaise that makes Claire vulnerable. Dean on the other hand appears to be completely amoral, somebody who is unaware or indifferent to the feelings of other, of how his behaviour affects them, a chancer who expects the rest of mankind to fit in with his plans. The life that Claire envies is built on a lie. There’s also an element of black humour in this novella, shown especially in the moment when farmer Colin reveals the fate of his missing wife. It’s a great little chiller.

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