Reviewed by Jenny Mounfield
If You Go Into the Woods by David Gaughran
Publisher: Arriba Arriba Books
Format: Kindle edition:
Written in the style of a fable, If You Go Into the Woods—the first of two short, short stories included in this book—is about eight year old Jiri Beranek’s obsession with a mysterious bird in the forest near his home. Growing up without a father, Jiri lacks guidance and direction and is judged harshly by his fellow villagers. As the narrator explains:
‘Jiri wasn’t a bad child. He was precocious and mischievous, with a worrying sadistic streak towards animals and broken bottles, but he also had a tender side that only his mother saw.’
Hmm. He sounds like a peach, does he not? So, while searching the forest for buried treasure one fine summer’s day, Jiri hears an intriguing chirp from the forested depths. Afraid to deviate from the trail, he is nevertheless consumed with curiosity about the unseen chirper. After pondering this problem at length, Jiri forms the conclusion that if the world is at its most dangerous at night—a fact his mother reinforces—then surely it will be safe to delve into the forest’s dark heart early in the morning. Armed with this logic, he sets off. What he discovers will trigger a never-ending loop of questions in readers’ minds that will prove difficult to shift.
In, The Reset Button, readers are introduced to Linus Eriksson, a man so apparently ordinary that none of those he’s encountered before remembers him. On entering his local bakery:
‘Linus smiled as he removed his gloves. “The Usual.”
She blinked then bit her lip. “Sorry, I don’t…” Her voice trailed off.
“The small sourdough.” He struggled to keep the edge from his voice. He had been coming to this bakery for more than two years.’
Plagued by an ex-wife and a slew of regrets, Linus treads life’s waters barely keeping his nose in the air. After forgetting to take his son to the zoo, he fights his way through snow and an endless maze of suburban streets to deliver an apology to his ex, only to be sent packing. There’s nothing left for Lunus to do but get drunk. If only people were like robots and cane equipped with reset buttons.
There are definite shades of HP Lovecraft in both stories. In, If You Go Into the Woods Gaughran unfortunately failed to nail Lovecraft’s sense of creeping mood and mounting menace. I found the seemingly never-ending: Hr crept a little closer. Chirp. And closer. Chirp. He reached out a hand. Chirp. Closer Chirp… annoyed rather than conveyed building tension. That’s not to say this story fails on every level. The questions—maddening questions—that Gaughran plants in the reader’s mind are a worthy pay-off. As Phineas T Barnum and Walt Disney are both credited with saying: ‘Leave them wanting more.’ At this Gaughran has excelled.
Generally speaking, Gaughran’s writing is good. Given that the tight confines of both stories leave little room for character development, the author has spent his words well. Linus, in particular, who is allowed more dialogue within which to grow, is well-rounded. While very different in style and manner, both stories share similar themes of ostracisation, loneliness, desire and the fallibility of human choice.
As previously mentioned, If You Go Into the Woodsplants many questions in the reader’s mind, perhaps the least obvious of which pertains to Jiri’s character: Is he the way he is due to his fatherless state and his mother’s unvoiced grief? So, too, The Reset Button raises many questions, the most prominent being: Even if it were possible, do we deserve second chances?
If You Go Into the Woods is probably not best suited to readers who prefer their stories neatly boxed with all the answers lined up. But for those readers who, like me, love punchy, entertaining reads with a bit of mental gymnastics thrown in, you can’t go wrong with this one.
About the reviewer: Jenny Mounfield is the author of a three published novels for children, her most recent being, The Ice-cream Man (Ford Street Publishing www.fordstreetpublishing.com) and a number of short stories for both children and adults published in print and online. She has reviewed children’s fiction for e-zine, Buzz Words since 2006. She lives in south-east Queensland Australia with her husband and three teenage children.