Skeletons of the Past

Author: Kate Alice Marshall

While playing in the woods with her best friends, eleven-year-old Naomi was brutally attacked by a serial killer and left to die. All these years later, she has taken it for granted that the right man was sent to prison. That her friend’s memories of the event were her own. That the man who was just executed for her attempted murder and for killing an unknown number of other women was her assailant. But what if he wasn’t? What if the man who attacked her went free? What if her testimony sent the wrong man to prison, to death row?

As an adult, Naomi has continued to live in denial, but a trip home after hearing that her alleged attacker was finally executed is opening old wounds. Plus, one of childhood friends wants to finally start talking about the Goddess Game, about the little girls’ dark magic in the woods, about Persephone and who she was. Is Naomi ready for truth? Ready to make her own misdeeds known and to make them right?

As the killing starts again, Naomi digs deep into her memory of that night and teams up with an unlikely ally, a podcaster who wants her to tell the truth and promises her the first real, untainted human connection she has had since the accident.

What Lies in the Woods is a slow-burn thriller, one about toxic relationships, self-destructive friendships, and haunted childhoods. It’s also a story of unlikable characters compelled by selfishness and mired in destructive habits. It’s hard to care about them, especially when you discover the details of The Goddess Game.

As pre-teens, the three best friends pretended at magic in the woods, but theirs was a dark, dangerous magic. Especially when they came upon a skeleton and started giving it offerings and performing rituals for it. Granted, these are children, yet at eleven-years-old it’s impossible to accept that none of them understand that this skeleton is real, is the remains of a person, and needs to be reported. This grim selfishness does not especially endear us to the children, whose darkness and codependency evolves after the attack. Persephone, or so they call the skeleton, remains hidden from view, a secret for a bad group of girls who have only started their lifelong collection of hidden agendas. Even after the attack, they do not reveal her.

As an adult, Naomi is also difficult to like. Her self-destructive nature is annoying; she is self-aware, always telling us how she chooses bad men, chooses people who will hurt her. This level of psychological acuteness is unlikely for a flawed character. If she really does realize all these things, why isn’t she doing something about this, digging herself out of this hole instead of forever burrowing deeper? It’s difficult to like a character who hides a body, lies on stand, and continues to consciously spiral downward. If you won’t help yourself, why should we help you by empathizing, by following your flawed, exceptionally slow-paced journey?

As the story struggles along, very, very, very, slowly, the characters sit and muse, muse and sit, and then finally we start to get some action. There is a desperate tumble towards the end, a kaleidoscope of lies and twists and turns and “you thought you really knew someone . . . but.” It’s the usual thriller fair, the bait-and-switch that we expected all along, the criminal psychopath hidden in plain sight, masterminding the entire thing for no discernable reason. At least it’s slightly more interesting than Naomi’s endless navel gazing.

Overall, I wasn’t impressed with What Lies in the Woods. I doubt I’ll ever come back to this author, and this book has already been thrown into my Little Free Library to disappoint someone else.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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