The Dark Between the Trees by Fiona Barnett
Rebellion, hb, £14.07
Reviewed by Sarah Deeming
Dr Alice Christopher has devoted her entire career to researching Moresby Wood and an unfortunate group of soldiers who disappeared in 1647 after entering the wood. The only records that give any clue what happened were from a deserter, documented by a nearby vicar claiming the local legend monster killed them. Leading an expedition of five women, Alice hopes to trace the soldiers’ steps and uncover the truth behind their disappearance.
However, the expedition is plagued from the outset. Electrical equipment fails, batteries die without being used, and injuries the group is injured. Worse, they are lost, and opinions differ on what to do. Alice knows one thing, though; she’ll get answers only if she can go further into the woods despite what the rest of the team thinks. Will Alice get the answers she’s spent her academic life looking for, or will Moresby Wood claim another set of lives?
The Darkness Between the Trees is a wonderful combination of horror and folklore. Told over two timelines, we follow the doomed group of Parliamentarian soldiers and Dr Alice Christopher’s group following in their footsteps. For most of the book, the timelines alternate, starting with Alice and then switching to Captain Davies and Sergeant Harper as they stumble through Moresby Woods with an ever-decreasing number of soldiers. Whatever disaster befalls Davies and Harper tends to hit Alice and her team, which builds tension as we, the reader, know what’s coming.
The parallels and contrasts between the two groups continue down to the leaders. Alice is not popular, like Davies, but Nuria, as Alice’s student, feels obliged to follow her because Alice is her tutor, not out of affection. On the other hand, Davies and Harper have been through much together, and Harper follows Davies out of respect and trust. The juxtaposition of how Alice and Davies handle their different situations speaks to their personalities, creating well-rounded, 3D characters that I was keen to follow to the end.
The dialogue was hit-and-miss for me. With Alice and her group, the dialogue is tense and spikey as the five women all have different priorities for the trip. Not everyone there thinks the expedition is worthwhile, and there is lots of bickering as tension rises. I loved that. I got really antsy waiting for the next fallout. However, there wasn’t a noticeable change in language for the soldiers despite being over 350 years between the two timelines. This won’t bother some people, but it stood out for me.
I also found the ending hit-and-miss too. Obviously, we know what will happen to Davies and Harper, but Alice’s ending left me with unanswered questions, especially about what was tracking the two groups. However, Nuria’s ending was perfect, so, on the whole, I was mostly satisfied.
So, the issue with the dialogue was the only real letdown for me. Otherwise, The Darkness Between the Trees was a sinister, atmospheric read joining the past and the present crammed with ghost stories and well-crafted characters. Except for a slight dip in the middle, the pace remained steady throughout, and then the tension between the characters crawled under my skin and remained with me after I’d finished.