Review of THE WOODS, by Stephen Leigh

June 24, 2011

Some time back — several months, actually, which is a little embarrassing — I received an e-copy of a book by Stephen Leigh called The Woods.  The book sat on my computer desktop for a long time, in its own virtual To Be Read pile.  As eager as I was to read the book, I don’t like reading books on my computer, and so I kept putting it off.  Then, a little over a week ago, I received a message from Apple on my iPod asking me if I wanted to download a free copy of Apple Books.  I did, and immediately put The Woods on the device in .pdf format.  Five days later I had finished reading it.

Let me pause here and say, in the spirit of full disclosure, that Stephen Leigh, the author of more novels than I can name, who also writes epic fantasy as S.L. Farrell, is a good friend and one of my favorite people in the world.  I wanted to like this book.  I would never deny that.  But I assure you that if I hadn’t liked it, I would have set it aside and never mentioned it again.

The fact is, I was blown away by The Woods.  It is billed as a dark fantasy, and it is that.  The magic in this story is both beautiful and disturbing.  The narrative is gripping; deceptively simple in its setup and satisfyingly complex in its execution.  And yet, while “Dark Fantasy,” may begin to describe The Woods, it does not do the book justice.  This is a deeply moving, literary novel, a reflection on adolescence that delves into the raw emotions of youth with the poetic insight of John Knowles (A Separate Peace) and the power of the underrated James Kirkwood (Good Times, Bad Times).

We begin in the mind of Rob, our main character, who returns to the home of his youth, and looks upon the woods he prowled with his best friend, Mark.

Then the water thrashing between rocks had been sparkling and alive, its source a deep, cold spring just beyond the subdivisions. Then, Cooper Creek—so named because for the longest part of its winding path it parallels the equally winding Cooper Road—was well populated with red-backed salamanders, crawdads, and tadpoles. Minnows glittered: silver sparks in the shallows of the rocky pools, while water striders skated serenely above, and if you were careful and quiet, you might even come upon a fox lapping the water from the bank.

Of course, part of that may simply be memory embellished with the artificial glow of time. Truth is as elusive as a minnow darting under a rock. Perhaps, if you’ll permit a poor pun, I worship a false idyll.

Humor, melancholy, nostalgia, and beneath it all a compelling honesty that makes this work of fiction read almost like memoir.  Leigh’s prose is elegant, his plotting tight, his character work outstanding.  But it is the voice of his protagonist that drives this story, that gives the book it’s emotional weight and power.

I’m not going to delve into plot summary or anything else that might give away the many surprises that await you in The Woods.  The book is not very long — 60,000 words or so — and as I mentioned above, it is a very quick read.  You can learn more about Steve and his other books here.   And you can buy an e-copy of The Woods through his website here.  At $3.99, I guarantee you that it will be the best deal you get all summer.

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