Book review: The Woman in the Wood by Lesley Pearse

The Woman in the Wood by Lesley Pearse
The Woman in the Wood by Lesley Pearse

Twenty-four years after her first novel hit the shelves, much-loved author Lesley Pearse has become something of a publishing sensation.

With 25 bestselling novels now under her belt and over 10 million of her books sold worldwide, it would be understandable if this master storyteller was tempted to pack away her word processor… but the lady is not for turning.

And her reputation for gripping and emotionally powerful human stories continues apace in The Woman in the Wood, her latest page-turner set in the buttoned-up years after the Second World War.

Mystery, murder, family bonds and dark secrets all play leading roles as Pearse works her special brand of storytelling magic on the compelling and atmospheric and story of teenage twins plucked suddenly from their London home to live with their frosty grandmother at her rambling mansion in the New Forest in 1960.

Fifteen-year-old twins Maisy and Duncan Mitcham have always led a sheltered life at their smart but old-fashioned home in Holland Park, London. Their stern and forbidding father shuts himself away in his study when he is not at work, and their mother, who has a ‘mysterious illness,’ spends all her time in bed.

Fortunately, the twins have always had each other, with easy-going optimist Duncan being the perfect foil for his sceptical, highly imaginative and forthright sister.

But one night, the twins awake to find their father pulling their screaming mother from the house. She is to be committed to an asylum and it is for her own good, he insists, but only two weeks later the twins are told that they are to leave home and live with their grandmother in Hampshire.

The youngsters have not been to Nightingales, their grandmother’s large house deep in the New Forest countryside, since they were six years old and their welcome is far from reassuring. Cold and remote, Mrs Mitcham informs them that she will not stand for ‘insolence, mischief or noise.’

Although they feel abandoned, Duncan and Maisy soon find solace in Janice, the gentle, warm and motherly housekeeper who takes them under her wing, and the enjoyment of something they have never had before… freedom.

Left to their own devices to explore, the twins find new friends, first romances and meet a host of local characters, including the ‘real-live’ local witch and a strange woman called Grace Deville who lives in a shack and is known as the ‘Woman in the Wood.’

But their rural paradise ends when Duncan disappears one evening after going cycling in the woods. Maisy instinctively knows something is terribly wrong and when the bodies of other young boys are discovered in the surrounding area, the police seem to give up hope of finding Duncan alive.

With Mrs Mitcham appearing to show little interest in her grandson’s disappearance, it is up to Maisy to discover the truth and she knows just where to start… with Grace Deville, the woman who is rumoured to be mad and to have killed her own baby.

It’s easy to see why Pearse has become one of the world’s favourite storytellers. This emotion-packed story, centred on one young woman’s courage, resilience, and dogged determination to find the truth behind her brother’s disappearance, blends crime, mystery, romance and social issues with acute precision and heartfelt passion.

Perfectly paced, brimming with suspense, and with a cast of deftly drawn characters and a tightly woven plot, The Woman in the Wood explores the harsh truths behind the treatment of mental illness in the post-war years, and the rigid dichotomy between the innocence of the twins and the darkness that lurks on the edge of their world.

And there are contrasts aplenty in this intriguing novel, not least between the natural warmth and empathy that emanates from housekeeper Janice, and the repressed and undemonstrative nature of the Mitcham family’s relationships.

Evocative, multi-faceted and sometimes disturbing, this is a story that grips from first page to last…

(Penguin, hardback, £18.99)