I know they say you should not judge a book by its cover, but the title of the book didn’t exactly lend itself to the highest of expectations, mainly because the cabin in the woods sub-genre is so overcrowded. But how wrong I was as, rather than being just another irreverent mashup of classic thriller and horror trappings, Lisa Unger’s deft alternation between different time settings and seemingly unrelated characters for much of the book gave this novel an edge over every other cabin-set thriller I’ve ever read, turning it into very much its own thing, despite a handful of by-the-numbers set-pieces. But those set pieces never undermined the story, as the intricate and intriguing plot and generally surprising twists and turns keep the reader fully invested in the characters and their motivations and implications in the grand scheme of things.
The book follows three couples who head off to a luxurious cabin in the woods for a relaxing weekend break. The holiday is a gift from Hannah’s loving and generous tech mogul brother for her birthday, but the quiet weekend soon turns into the worst laid plan ever, as a deadly storm is brewing, there’s something decidedly off about the rental host, and the six friends each have their own complicated pasts, with secrets that run literally blood deep, all gradually bubbling to the surface during their stay, leaving Hannah questioning just how well she knows her brother, her own husband, and if she can trust her best friend, Cricket, and the new boyfriend she’s brought in tow.
What sets this novel apart from its counterparts is the heavy emphasis placed on an unexpectedly intriguing genealogical thread that is cleverly woven into the plot, opening the door to a thought-provoking meditation on people’s origins and why we are the way we are. This is bolstered by a cleverly plotted storyline that deviates into multiple timelines that do a fantastic job at keeping the reader eager to figure out where all the roads will ultimately lead. Add to this a diverse cast of characters and you’ve got the perfect whodunit, as the different layers are slowly revealed to show each character’s true colours.
Such a complex, off-kilter technique is never easy to pull off, as it can so easily detract from the core story, but Unger uses some cleverly disciplined and deceptive plot devices to really draw the reader in and keep you guessing right up until the final reveal.
The cabin setting could quite easily have been any other location but it worked here with the addition of some intimidating backstory for the cabin where they are staying. While most stories set in such remote locations tend to overdo it when it comes to no phone signal and the like to make it impossible for the protagonists to get help, Unger does a great job of economising her use of technical glitches, and when they do occur, they are much more believable than they typically are, and a lot of situations that might initially seem far-fetched end up having very good explanations.
In short, do not be put off by the well-worn setting and familiar-sounding narrative beats, because Unger spins a tale that is calculatingly compelling, and readers will find themselves well and truly engrossed by the sum of all the book’s parts, especially the sui generis inclusion of a fascinating meditation on how much of human nature is inherited, which forges so much extra mileage out of an initially straightforward premise.
Publisher: Legend Press // Publishes: February 28, 2023