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  • Written by Amanda Craig
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  • Written by Amanda Craig
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In a Dark Wood

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A Novel

Written by Amanda CraigAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Amanda Craig

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On Sale: February 19, 2002
Pages: 288 | ISBN: 978-0-385-50562-8
Published by : Anchor Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Thirty-nine, recently divorced, jobless, Benedick Hunter is an actor heading in the exact opposite direction of happily ever after: everything from spending time with his own children to the prospect of dating brings him down. So when he comes across a children's book his mother Laura wrote, he decides that her life and work--haunting stories replete with sinister woods and wicked witches and brave girls who battle giants--hold the key to figuring out why his own life is such a mess.

Setting out to find out why Laura killed herself when he was six, Benedick travels from his native England to the U.S. in search of her friends and his own long-lost relatives. As he grows obsessed with Laura's books and their veiled references to reality Benedick enters into a dark wood–a dark wood that is both hilariously real and terrifyingly psychological. It is then that his story becomes an exploration not only of his mother's genius but also of the nature of depression, and of the healing power of storytelling in our lives.

Excerpt

One

The book, her book, was bound in black, with the words North of Nowhere indented in worn gold on the spine. Dirty and dusty, the boards loose under the cloth, it resembled a kind of withered bat. I looked at it with vague distaste. Then, almost as if it had suddenly come to life, it slithered out of my grasp, jabbed my foot, bounced and splayed open. I picked it up. I didn't know then how dangerous fairy tales can be.

I was trying to separate my possessions from those of my wife, Georgina. A biography in books, this is why some people scan your shelves, in the manner of a Roman seer gazing at entrails. There were duplicate editions of T. S. Eliot and Shakespeare, of Beckett, Pinter, and Joyce. My own copies of Conrad, Dostoevsky, and Waugh jumbled up with her Austen, George Eliot and the Brontës...the male versus the female canon. The plays I had been in, with my parts underlined in lurid orange. Her university texts, with notes scribbled in pencil or biro. Then single volumes, signifying union: paperbacks stained with the oils of lost summers, whose cracked spines still released cascades of fine sand or faded blades of pale grass; hardbacks generously inscribed to mark birthdays or Christmas, passed from one to the other at bedtime as a preliminary to love; bound proofs of new books, battered ghosts of old ones. All of these, left to me to divide and put into boxes. She had taken the children's books, as she had taken the children. We had been separated now for over a year, and were getting divorced.

I had been astonished by how much suffering this had caused, and was now weary. My body had taken on a life of its own, in which it wept while I remained an embarrassed parent, unable to control its excesses. She had gone and I had stayed. It wasn't just because I'd been determined not to relinquish this house. I had been unable to do anything. Once a fortnight, I would emerge to buy groceries. Otherwise I slumped in an armchair, without hope or energy. Some days, I couldn't remember how to talk. On really bad days, I couldn't even walk either. Eventually, after a bout of snarling by lawyers, we had agreed to sell and split the proceeds. The new owners were people who would paper over the walls and drain the Japanese pond I had made in the garden (I had heard them agreeing on this in loud voices, when they walked round with the estate agent). Several other prospective buyers had dropped out even as they walked to the front door. I had heard stories of divorcees who had bought a dog just so it could crap over all the carpets and drive the price down, but my neglect wasn't calculated. I had given up washing anything, including myself. The small, synchronized actions to get to the bathroom were too much for me. I knew the new owners would think I was crazy anyway. People always think this of the person who lived in their house before them. It's a way of pretending you never existed.

In every room, packers were entombing our furniture, wadding it in transparent, silvery bubbles that, they assured me, would protect the most fragile of objects. If I stood still for long enough, there was even a chance they might do the same to me. I shivered. The front and back doors were open, the heating switched off. What had been my life, our life, was finally ebbing from this place. Already, the house was acquiring a hollow sound, motes swirling in weak sunlight as if the very atoms of my existence were being sent into Brownian motion. There was nothing but boxes and dust, and these, too, would go--a ghostly picture here, a chair there, wiped out, painted over, forgotten.

I turned over the book I held. The pages were spotted like elderly hands. I began to read, mechanically.

"At least tell me the way," she said, "and I will seek you--that I may surely be allowed to do?"

"There is no hope, not unless you wear out an iron staff and a pair of iron shoes in searching," said he. "The troll witch lives in a castle which lies East of the Sun and West of the Moon, and there too is her daughter the princess with a nose three ells long, and she is the one I now must marry."

Then the girl fell into a deep, deep sleep; and when she awoke there was no prince or castle, only a little patch of green on which she lay and the great dark wood all around. By her side was the same bundle of rags that she had brought with her from her own home.


Why should these words have affected me so deeply? Perhaps it was seeing my own home vanish, like that of the girl in the story. Perhaps it was knowing that I was heading North of Nowhere, too. Or perhaps it was the drawing beside it, occupying almost the whole page, and executed in black ink. There was an ornate frame just inside the margin of white, made of intertwined thorns, and then the illustration itself.

What I saw was a girl, waking up in a tiny clearing almost completely overgrown by black brambles and branches. There was no visible way out, just a shaft of sunlight coming down on her like a spotlight in a theatre. Her face was a white wedge of misery. The darkness pressed in upon her, wave on wave of chaotic, seething undergrowth: yet was repulsed. You could tell, I don't know how or why, that this wasn't going to be the end of the story, that she was going to get up and put on those iron shoes and find the happiness she had lost. She looked the way I felt, or wanted to feel.

High on an empty bookcase, a telephone rang. It would not be cut off until noon. I closed the book with an effort and thrust it into the pocket of my jacket.

"Oh, hi, hi, it's me. I was just wondering how you are." This was Diana, one of several single women who had decided that my emotional, psychological, and gastronomic well-being was of particular concern to her. Diana was the most persistent.

"Fine."

"I just wanted to know if there's anything I can do. I could get a couple of hours off work, to help you pack, you know? It must be so difficult for you."

"It's done. Thank you."

I forced myself to sound a little less churlish, and immediately a tin of syrupy concern oozed towards me.

"Are you sleeping OK? Eating? You know, any time you want something cooked, let me know. You need to look after yourself, Dick."

As I lied that I was not drowning but microwaving my Meals for One, the line began an insistent chirping. This was my excuse for ringing off, in case it was my agent.

"Hallo? It's Sarah? I suddenly realized you're about to have a new number. I'm having a drinks party next week. Would you like to come?"

They were all so hesitant, these Cinderellas of the mating game, it was difficult to see them as predatory. Something had gone wrong in their lives--they had worked too hard, or played too fast, or been too soft or stayed too long--and now they were desperate, strung out, seeking salvation at the eleventh hour before the biological clock struck midnight. It was not myself they wanted so much as any half-decent heterosexual husband. They had hearts overflowing with love, yet they woke up every morning and saw the gradual withering, the shriveling, the advance of age that only marriage and childbearing could make tolerable. I felt sorry for them, but fed up. I wasn't the solution to anybody's problem, any more than they were to mine.

Upstairs, the packers grunted. The tape they carried in large reels thrummed and shrieked; they would cut the right length with keys--keys, presumably, to their own homes. The dismantling of my own would not take much longer, I knew. Boxes were stacked like battlements on either side of me; I envisaged Georgina and myself crouched down behind our respective barricades like two feuding medieval barons, sniping at each other.

As if in response, the telephone rang again. My wife's voice. I imagined it being bounced down from space, as heartless and cheerful as a goddess speaking from her oracle. "How's it all going?"

I gritted my teeth, and tried to keep my voice even and light. Years of training, and in a situation like this I still start to hyperventilate. "Like a nervous breakdown in slow motion."

She laughed. All my life I had tried to be funny, and nobody laughed. Now I told the truth and everything I said was amusing.

"Bad luck."

"All these women keep ringing up. Single ones."

"Why don't you try going out with one of them?" said Georgie.

"There's always a reason why they're still single."

"Nonsense. They're lovely girls. Clever, pretty, successful, nice, good cooks--what more d'you want?"

"They aren't you."

I knew at once that I'd overstepped the invisible line that had to exist between us.

"Oh, Benedick, you are sweet. You never said anything as nice to me when we were married."

"We're still married."

A large part of my wife's attraction is that she treats my sex as though we're children to be managed. She used to enjoy this. Then she had Cosmo and Flora.

"You should be out there, enjoying your freedom."

I knew this was true. In fact my first reaction when she left me was a kind of elation. If you've been with the same person for most of your adult life, you can't help feeling curious. All those girls you haven't slept with, the parties you haven't gone to, the offers you've turned down.

A year ago, my new situation had seemed like a sort of holiday. Furious, but elated, I raced about going to films and plays and parties as if released from bondage. I had kept my wedding ring on, largely because it had become too tight to remove, but I was free. I would stand in front of the mirror, with the theme tunes to the James Bond movies playing very loud, drawing an imaginary gun from a holster. I could go to the gym, travel the world, buy designer clothes, have affairs--

It took about three months for this tawdry fantasy to come crashing down. Most of the people I knew were just as I was--exhausted, poor, harassed, and prematurely aged by parenthood. The unmarried looked better but behaved worse. Everyone who was still single came trailing a history of romantic disappointment. In my twenties parties had been casual, raucous, bring-a-bottle events. Now, as forty approached, there was champagne, cocaine, and utter desperation. I was actually frightened by the intensity with which I was pursued. One woman I had hardly even spoken to came up to me and said, "don't want a relationship. Let's just fuck."

I stopped going out, but not before my name and number had been entered in too many address books. Now Georgina had joined in the game of pairing me off. "What about Amelia de Monde?"

"You must be joking. The last thing I want is another divorcee. Or another hack, for that matter."

My wife ignored this. Just before she left me, she had been writing a column about her life, in which I had featured largely as a neurotic layabout who spent all our money on absurdities and left her to cope with the ensuing disaster. It was hugely popular--thousands of women apparently wrote to say their own lives were just the same. No, I did not want Amelia de Monde.
Amanda Craig

About Amanda Craig

Amanda Craig - In a Dark Wood
Amanda Craig is the author of three novels, including A Vicious Circle, which is currently being developed for BBC television. In a Dark Wood is the first of her novels to be published in the United States. Craig, who writes regularly The Times, The Sunday Times, and The New Statesman, lives in London.
Praise

Praise

"[An] absorbing, often dreamlike story."--The New York Times

"Craig. . . . reconfigures archetypal characters and situations. . . . finding the hope and humanity in a frightening and confusing disease."--The Village Voice

"Amanda Craig’s In a Dark Wood is tantalizing, dark, mysterious and strange. Its deft insights cut sharply as it evokes the inside of mental illness with uncanny lucidity and humor.” –Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon

In a Dark Wood explores the immensely complicated, often open borders between imagination and mental illness. Craig has written a profound account of darkness, and she has done it in a passionate, original, and beautiful way.” –Kay Redfield Jamison, author of An Unquiet Mind

"A sneakily beguiling book."--Salon

"Craig's wonderful page-turning storytelling will keep you up way past your time for bed."--The Times (London)
“In a sly blend of southern gothic and British wit, Craig weaves . . . a story that is both whimsical and unsettling.” –People

In a Dark Wood is a first-rate story--both psychologically acute and mythologically convincing--and often very funny as well.” –Alison Lurie

“The notable strengths of her writing lay in her sardonic sense of humor and the ability to spin a comedy of adult manners around the serious predicament of children.”–The Times Literary Supplement

“Witty and disturbing. . . . A novel of both accomplishment and charm.” –The Daily Mail

“Just as the best fairy tales do, In a Dark Wood exposes rich depths of meaning through a relatively simple plot.” –The Winston-Salem Journal

“Clever, imaginative, and even darkly humorous, Craig's novel, like a book of beloved fairy tales, gives us a hero to root for and an inventive, multi-layered story.” –Booklist

“A complex, original, and often moving book, which also manages to be entertaining.”–The Mail on Sunday

“A dreamy, spellbinding novel. . . . Craig brings chilling suspense and dark humor to a stylized study of the loss of childhood innocence, the complexities of creativity and the correlation between artistic genius and mental health--all expertly cloaked in the symbols and metaphors of fairy tales.” –Publishers Weekly



Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“An absorbing, often dreamlike story.” –The New York Times

In her novel, In a Dark Wood, Amanda Craig takes the reader on one man’s manic ride through the hidden depths of his family history into his own disturbed mind. We hope the following introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography enhance your group’s reading of this mesmerizing and inventive exploration of the intersection between manic depression, reality, imagination, and creative self-expression.

About the Guide

London native Benedick Hunter is a recently divorced, out-of-work actor and the ambivalent father of two young children, who is battling loneliness and depression. While going through the motions of packing his possessions to move from his house, Benedick finds a book of fairy tales by his late mother entitled North to Nowhere. Upon opening the book, he embarks upon a journey discovering his mother’s concealed past–her seemingly unhappy marriage, her secret family in America, her success as a children’s illustrator and author, and, ultimately, her unexplained suicide when Benedick was just a boy. Intrigued by the mystical and dark stories in his mother’s work and the familiar faces in her illustrations, Benedick discovers piece by piece his mother’s troubled life, traversing the turbulent waters of his own mind in the process. His research leads him across the Atlantic to rural America outside Charleston, South Carolina, where his mother’s family still lives. The bizarre and grim truth that Benedick unearths there finally completes the puzzle about his mother’s past and leads to the diagnosis of his own mental illness.

Running the gamut from cryptic to familiar, horrifying to comic, disturbing to moving, the story line of In a Dark Wood swings as dramatically as the moods of its protagonist. Craig keeps the reader guessing while she escalates the frenzied rise and fall of Benedick’s mania, providing relief to the reader in the form of answers, and to Benedick in the form of mood-equalizing lithium.

About the Author

Amanda Craig is the author of five novels, including A Vicious Circle, which is currently being developed for BBC television by the director of Bridget Jones’s Diary. In a Dark Wood is the first of her novels to be published in the United States. Craig, who writes regularly for The Times, The Sunday Times, and The New Statesman, lives in London.

Discussion Guides

1. Contemplating his divorce, Benedick describes his state of mind: “What frightened me most was, I could no longer believe in my own life as a story. Everyone needs a story, a part to play in order to avoid the realization that life is without significance. How else do any of us survive? It’s what makes life bearable, even interesting. When it becomes neither, people say you’ve lost the plot. Or just lost it” [p. 19]. At the end of the novel, when Benedick finds acting work, he concludes: “It was this, I think, as much as the lithium, that made me better. It meant that I hadn’t been written out of the story of my life. People say that life has no story, that to believe it does is a symptom of madness, and I had thought this, too. But I knew I couldn’t go on living without some version of the truth. Every version has its blessing and it curse” [p. 301]. Is Benedick’s statement that “everyone needs a story” just the artist speaking, or is he expressing a universal truth? What is the story of Benedick’s life? What is his version of the truth and how does it evolve?

2. How does each fairy tale that Benedick reads reveal more and more about Laura’s life and state of mind? What is the significance of the order of the tales in North of Nowhere as read by Benedick throughout the novel? Why might Craig have chosen to name her novel for Laura’s first book, In a Dark Wood, when it is actually Laura’s fairy tales in North of Nowhere that structure the plot of the novel?

3. Ruth tells Benedick: “If you read fairy tales carefully, you’ll notice they are mostly about people who aren’t heroes. They don’t have special powers, or gifts. Often they are despised as stupid. They are bullied, beaten up, robbed, starved. But they find they are stronger than their misfortunes” [p. 25]. Is Ruth correct? If so, can “The Wild Wood” [pp. 200—207] be accurately characterized as a “fairy tale” or is it something else? How might the genre of fairy tales be defined or explained? How do fairy tales compare to other literary genres? Is it correct to assume that fairy tales are children’s literature, and, if so, why?

4. How does Benedick’s illness manifest itself physically–especially after he arrives in America? If his divorce can be understood as the trigger for his depression, what might have triggered his high?

5. What accounts for the fluctuations in Benedick’s personality, such as when he gives his son and daughter each a smack [p. 57] and when he buys them fourteen pairs of shoes [pp. 253-254]? Are they significant in any way or are they a normal reaction to the circumstances in his life?

6. Benedick says of his divorce: “And this is the most hideous thing about somebody falling out of love with you. When someone loves you, you show your best self to them, to the world. When you lost that love, you lose your best self, and are shown instead how loathsome and contemptible you truly are. To be seen without love by someone who once loved you is to be made lower than anyone can endure” [p. 59]. And later, Benedick lucidly realizes: “I thought of the people I had questioned when trying to find out about my mother. I had been so ready to dislike and condemn them, but it was really myself I had been disliking and condemning. You’re either unbearable to other people or you’re unbearable to yourself, the psychiatrist had said. What if I were both?” [p. 295] Are Benedick’s two statements reconcilable? Is Benedick’s earlier statement symptomatic of a man recently divorced or of a manic depressive or both? Can Benedick’s feelings and behavior towards other people be attributed to his mental illness or his personality? Are the two so intertwined that it is impossible to separate them?

7. Benedick offers Flora an explanation of “mad”: “It’s when you see or feel things differently from other people” [p. 128]. Does In a Dark Wood confirm or refute this definition? How else might one define madness?

8. The following exchange between Benedick, Ruth, and Cosmo is one example of how the English personality and temperament is compared and contrasted with the American personality and temperament:

“Is that true, that you can become anything? Cosmo asked.
“Yes,” said Ruth firmly. “That’s what American’s believe.”
“Do English people believe that?”
I [Benedick] cleared my throat. “No, not really.”
“What do we believe in?”
“In irony,” I said. (p. 129)

In what other ways are English and American psyches and temperaments compared and contrasted in the novel?

9. Benedick says: “I grew up in a generation which had no idea that women were going to be our equals. You were just supposed to keep going no matter what. But now there’s no place for us. We’re a biological dead end. It’s stupid to even keep on living” [p. 24]. Does this accurately describe the current state of affairs with regard to equality between the sexes? What was the gender balance between Benedick and Georgie, and how did it affect their relationship? From what Benedick is able to piece together, how did gender equality or lack thereof affect Laura’s life and career?

10. Benedick comments: “ It was strange, I thought, the way all the women I had interviewed about my mother spent at least as much time describing their own lives as hers” [p. 182]. What do this and other comments in the novel reveal about the differences between males and females? Is the illness manifested differently in Benedick than Laura because of their different genders?

11. How could Benedick’s relationship with his children be characterized? Is he a typical father? Are his frustrations and celebrations normal? Are they indicative of his illness, and, if so, how?

12. How accurately does Craig, a female author, give her male protagonist an authentic male voice? How does her choice to narrate the novel in the first person affect the reader’s understanding of Benedick? Of his mental illness?

13. What does acting mean to Benedick? How is it different than another occupation? How might it take on a different meaning for him in light of his mental condition?

14. What is the implication of Jane Holly’s statement to Benedick that “artists are nearly always called [mad]. Some are genuinely so. What they do isn’t the product of being nice, or even particularly sane. They’re running over the Bridge of One Hair, like Lolly” [p. 185]? How does the artistic temperament differ from that of non-artists?

15. How is the creative process of acting compared to that of writing in the novel?

Suggested Readings

Richard Ford, Independence Day; Chris Bohjalian, Midwives; Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City; Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees; Ian McEwan, Atonement; Carol Goodman, The Lake of Dead Languages; Ann Packer, The Dive from Clausen’s Pier; Charles Baxter, The Feast of Love; Alistair MacLeod, No Great Mischief; Robert Cohen, Inspired Sleep; Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind; Sylvia Nasar, A Beautiful Mind; Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust; Janet Fitch, White Oleander.

  • In a Dark Wood by Amanda Craig
  • March 11, 2003
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Anchor
  • $13.00
  • 9780385721172

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