Review: What She Found in the Woods by Josephine Angelini

Review: What She Found in the Woods by Josephine Angelini

‘After a devastating scandal breaks in her elite New York City private school, Magdalena is shipped off to her family home to spend a summer recovering under the radar. Over-medicated and under-confident, she spends her days in a fog, hiking in the woods behind her grandparents’ cottage.

But then a gorgeous boy called Bo stumbles across her picnic blanket and Magdalena starts believing she might be able to move on from her past. Bo is wild and free and he gets her – it’s like he can see into her soul. Finally she’s starting to feel… something.

But there’s something dark going on in this sleepy town, and when a mutilated body is found in the woods near Bo’s forest home, it’s clear that Magdalena’s nightmare is just beginning. She’s no longer sure if she can trust anyone – even herself…’

What She Found in the Woods is a well-paced and cleverly structured read that explores a number of issues within its overarching narrative, including mental health, family ties and unhealthy friendships and relationships. It is, admittedly, not my usual kind of read, which is why I think I have a few issues with its content – particularly a lack of consequences for a broad range of actions – but the story itself is entertaining and engaging, with suspense and tension particularly well executed and exploited in the last third of the book.

Magda herself is a difficult character to get to grips with, especially because she is, from the outset and almost by her own admittance, quite an unreliable narrator. I don’t believe that it is necessary for the reader to be able to completely empathise with a character for them to be a good and interesting character, yet there are quite large stretches early on in the story where there is more material stacked against encouraging the reader to become invested in her personally. I believe this is largely by design, because not only has she been abandoned by her parents, but her grandparents only wish to see the surface and not acknowledge anything that might be remotely unpleasant, creating a distance that is echoed in her relationship with the reader, but it does mean that it takes a little longer for her story to become one that you feel involved in.

If I had to pick one feature of the story to applaud, it’s the exploration of mental health issues. Magda’s grandparents don’t want to understand or acknowledge what has happened (and is happening) to her, nor do they want anything to disturb their day to day lives, and so they self-medicate with alcohol and make sure that they take regular doses of their own medication. It’s a relatively small detail, but a recurring element of the narrative, and interesting commentary about how damaging such behaviour can be. Magda herself is initially over-medicated to the point where she cannot feel anything and is afraid to tell people that she’s taking medication because of the social stigma of being seen to need assistance in regulating her mental state. This said, there is a point where she stops taking her pills in a way that is not medically sound and I have to say that I doubt whether this particular facet of the story is one that is particularly helpful in its representation and could actually be dangerous. Solely speaking in terms of the story, it has to happen for it to work, but the way in which it’s done feels a little careless and is something that jolted me out of the book.

On the whole, What She Found in the Woods is a skilfully executed story with a good look at the darker side of human nature and what lurks beneath the surface of what may seem idyllic and perfect. It’s out today from Pan Macmillan! Thank you to My Kinda Book for sending me a copy!

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