A slow burn thriller. Taut. Gripping. Dramatic. Surprising. A superb example of British thriller writing. Book one of hopefully many.
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With a heady mix of thriller and even some horror elements, The Cuckoo Wood introduces us to the character of Dr. Alex Ripley. A doctor of theology who has built a career on debunking religious mythology and finding rational explanations for so called miracles. M. Sean Coleman has created a fascinating character in Ripley, whilst she actively debunks theories our protagonist is not interested in attacking faith but rather those that would seek to use that faith to their own ends. Those offering false hope of miracle cures come in for particular attention in the early chapters. Ripley has an air of a British Dana Scully about her and there are certainly elements of the story that can be seen to take an influence from The X-Files. That wonderful building of a narrative, of characters that both intrigue and entertain whilst not obsessing over constant cliffhangers of “shocking” twists defined the early seasons and I can see this reflected in Coleman’s style. The Cuckoo Wood would make a great HBO series. Despite its horror elements, there is a remarkably low and really non-violent body count here. Understanding that some of the very best of the genre is drawn from your imagination not from blood, guts and gore.
Our story follows an investigation in the small Cumbrian village of Kirkdale into the suicides of a number of teenage girls and their links to a local legend The Kirkdale Angel. Dr. Alex Ripley is called in by an old friend to try and get to the bottom of the local angel myth and find out how it might be linked. As the community draws in on itself that task gets tougher and tougher, there are secrets here and if any more needless deaths are to be prevented those secrets need to out.
Pacing in this novel is near perfection, The Cuckoo Wood is in no rush, it’s a slow burn of a story which draws you in as it builds a sense of unease, of tension, of for lack of a better term ‘wrongness’. Nonetheless as its threads start to come together, as the story builds so does the pace, by the end it feels like you’re racing through the pages with urgency. As with all the novels that linger longest in the mind, character is clearly very important to Coleman, in the case of Ripley we are getting to know someone with whom we may be spending a lot of time in the future. Ripley has an interesting back story in the form of a missing husband, we don’t know an awful lot, yet, about him, but there is a feeling that something isn’t quite right. There’s a part of the picture we aren’t seeing yet which lends intrigue to her story. A focus on character extends to the inhabitants of Kirkdale, we get to know these people and this world and start to understand their way of thinking, even when it may be anathema to our own. Coleman challenges you to have empathy with people whose decisions would make your blood boil.
An underlying discussion of the dangers of blind faith and of religious indoctrination from an early age runs through the story. In a world where we are increasingly finding ourselves lacking nuanced debate, its an important and thought provoking thread. I don’t read it as an attack on religious faith though, I read it as a fable on the dangers of not questioning the world in which we live, of not coming to our own conclusions and of the very real dangers that peer pressure within a community can present. The whole village is drawn in from young to old. Acceptance is important to the villagers and the fear of losing that drives them and their actions. In much the same way as social media acceptance, societal pressures to conform to an image, a fear of how you are perceived by certain groups can drive a person’s actions in reality. Through his story Coleman provides some very real food for thought, in an era where we are finally questioning toxic masculinity, casual misogyny and homophobia, the pervasive influence of taboos over issues such as mental health (the list could go on and on), this can only be a good thing. The very best stories are a reflection of society, and through the village of Kirkwood a mirror is very much held up to the world at large.
In a lot of ways, the closest book I can compare this to is A Week In December by Sebastian Faulks, in so much as you will get out of it what you put in. If you are looking for a damn good thriller, with a gripping story and characters that you love, hate and love to hate, this book delivers in spades. But scratch underneath the surface a little and there is so much more going on. A sign of a writer of immense talent, imagination and conscience. The Cuckoo Wood is a spectacular introduction to the world of Dr. Alex Ripley, who will be back in The Hollow Sky this November, I for one can’t wait.