Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Kimi Cunningham Grant has found her entry into the club of noteworthy thriller writers when she published her first novel, and with These Silent Woods she further cements her foothold in the genre. It tells the story of a father living in the mountains with his daughter in near-complete isolation, until one day an unfortunate series of events leads the demons of his past right to their doorstep.
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Kimi Cunningham Grant Isolates Us in the Mountains
If there’s one setting thrillers and mysteries tend to go back to, it’s one which places the characters in total isolation from the outside world. Things are much more interesting when they only have themselves to rely on, and in Kimi Cunningham Grant‘s second novel, These Silent Woods, we have a psychological thriller which makes full use of its solitary setting.
The story begins by introducing us to a father and daughter, Cooper and Finch, living in isolation from the rest of society in the Appalachian mountains. Raising his daughter by himself and away from the prying eyes of the world has proven a challenge, but he was able to instill in her a rigid code of life, and impart on her knowledge from the many books lining his shelves.
Though Finch knows little else, she does start to push back against the sequestered existence her father created for her, unsure of why it was necessary in the first place. Their only contacts with the outside world are a strange hermit who tends to show up uninvited, and Cooper’s friend Jake, who brings them supplies every winter… until now.
Jake’s absence marks the beginning of a long chain of events which, in a sense, grant Finch her wish of greater freedom, all while bringing nightmares from a previous life right to Cooper’s doorstep. A stranger’s appearance in the woods complicates things considerably, and Finch’s obsession with her might pose a very real danger to their lives.
Cooper has been trying to outrun his demons for a long time now, but it looks like he might have to face them if he hopes to keep his daughter, the last person on Earth who matters to him. The boundaries between right, wrong and necessary are all starting to blur together, and the threat of losing everything might just drive him to some desperate decisions.
The Calm Anxiety in These Silent Woods
If there’s one thing we’ve come to expect from the psychological thriller genre, it’s a fast-paced plot characterized by short and eventful chapters leaving little room for anything but forward movement. While there’s always going to be a place for these types of novels, it’s quite refreshing when a slower-paced book such as These Silent Woods falls into my lap.
When I say slow-paced, I do mean it in relation to the genre it’s in and its peers. In and of itself, I’d say the story moves along fairly briskly, while still giving us time to think, process the smaller details, make predictions for what’s coming, get acquainted with the characters, and to build an atmosphere of suspense hanging above the reader like the sword of Damocles, like a creeping sense of dread and anxiety which only amplifies as the events unfold.
At the start, things seem fairly calm and peaceful as we’re introduced to Cooper and Finch and given an essential tour of the life they’ve built for themselves. Kimi Cunningham Grant is quite intelligent about the way she divulges information, trickling it down to us on a need-to-know basis, turning Cooper’s shadowed past into a compelling mystery which ends up taking the centre stage.
As is customary for novels in this genre, there are a good amount of twists and turns strategically placed throughout the story, and they never feel overwhelming, out of place, or overabundant. As a matter of fact, I’d say the author is a bit more sparse with them than many of her peers, which ultimately makes them a lot more impactful when they finally hit.
The escalation of the tension is also quite masterfully executed, starting with Jake’s failure to deliver the winter supplies and constantly increasing until we reach the ending where it feels like all bets are off. Naturally, I’m not going to spoil anything here, but I never felt certain about the fates awaiting our characters, and in my opinion it’s a giant plus for any psychological thriller.
An Exile’s Solitude
The plot surrounding Cooper and Finch having to deal with the past catching up to them might be the main driving force in this novel, but I don’t think it would have ever worked as well as it does without the care, attention and love Kimi Cunningham Grant devoted to her characters, making them so much more than mere devices to advance the plot.
For starters, the premise of These Silent Woods essentially guarantees the presence of very few characters, which I’ve personally come to enjoy, especially after reading a few novels which go way overboard to the other extreme (looking at you, John Le Carre). I’m not saying this only because it’s much easier to remember them all, but also because it gives us the opportunity to explore them in much greater depth.
The novel is told in first-person from Cooper’s perspective, and it feels like there’s always more to learn about him, no matter how much we might already know. The author succeeds in making a multi-layered person out of him, one whose desires often conflict with the means at his disposal and the circumstances he finds himself in. He is deeply-flawed, and ultimately, quite relatable in his decisions and thought processes. The more we know about him, the more everything he does feels justified.
The way in which Cooper describes the other people in his life is quite evocative and always makes you feel the person, rather than simply stating facts and impressions about them. This quality also extends to his inner monologues and meditations, often touching on topics relating to their family life in near-total solitude.
On her end, Finch is wise beyond her years for an eleven-year-old, but to a believable enough extent without making her into a genius who can take on the world by herself. Her interactions with her father are always meaningful and touching in their own ways, and it’s interesting to observe how the entire experience shapes her being, helping her to develop as a character, and sending her on a path to be a better person than her father could hope to be himself.
|288||Minotaur Books||Nov. 16 2021||978-1250793393|
The Final Verdict
These Silent Woods by Kimi Cunningham Grant is a first-rate psychological thriller taking things a little more slowly, taking us to the captivating wilderness of the Appalachian mountains where Cooper and Finch must face a danger they can’t run from anymore. It combines an exciting plot, an expertly-crafted atmosphere and extremely well-developed characters.
If you enjoy thriller stories with few well-developed characters taking place in isolated settings, then I have no doubts this novel will be right up your alley.
Kimi Cunningham Grant
Kimi Cunningham Grant is an American author living and teaching in Pennsylvania and has quite notably won the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Prize in Poetry on two occasions. Her first published book was titled Silver Like Dust, a memoir chronicling the lives of her Japanese-American grandparents during the Second World War. Following that, she also went on to published Fallen Mountains and These Silent Woods.