Source: Review copy
Publication: 20th February 2020 from Bantam Press
Elijah has lived in the Memory Wood for as long as he can remember. It’s the only home he’s ever known.
Elissa has only just arrived. And she’ll do everything she can to escape.
When Elijah stumbles across thirteen-year-old Elissa, in the woods where her abductor is hiding her, he refuses to alert the police. Because in his twelve years, Elijah has never had a proper friend. And he doesn’t want Elissa to leave.
Not only that, Elijah knows how this can end. After all, Elissa isn’t the first girl he’s found inside the Memory Wood.
As her abductor’s behaviour grows more erratic, Elissa realises that outwitting strange, lonely Elijah is her only hope of survival. Their cat-and-mouse game of deception and betrayal will determine both their fates, and whether either of them will ever leave the Memory Wood . . .
This book is a bobby dazzler. It is an exceptional, chilling, utterly compelling and propulsive psychological thriller. Sometimes a book will just grab you from the off and never let go and that’s how The Memory Wood was for me.
Elissa Mirzoyan is a seriously bright 13 year old who is a talented competitive chess player and her voice is one of three telling this story. Elissa lives with her mother Lena in Salisbury and together they attend the chess tournaments she plays at.
They are attending one such in Bournemouth when Elissa is snatched by an unknown assailant. Hooded, drugged and thrown in the back of a white van, Elissa wakes to find herself manacled and confined in an old stone cellar, cold, dirty and very thirsty.
When her captor visits her, he wears a torch attached to his head so that the light hits her straight in the eyes and blinds her. His instructions are clear. Do what you are told and you will be rewarded. Fail to comply and you will be punished.
Elissa is terrified, but she also wants to find a way home, so she sets her methodical mind to working out strategies for just how to do that. She starts by trying to remember everything that has happened to her, and then she maps out her cell like the squares in a chess board so that she can remember where everything is.
Her heart lifts when she has a visitor. 12 year old Elijah lives in the Memory Wood. He wants desperately to make friends with Elissa, but he knows that she is not the first he has tried to befriend and fears she will not be the last. Elijah only has his brother Kyle and Magic Annie, who lives in a caravan on the estate that he calls home, to keep him company. Elissa knows Elijah is her best chance of a way out, but Elijah knows how this ends and while he tries to offer her advice, he can’t do what she asks of him, though he will continue to visit her.
Together, they construct a fantasy world; Elissa is Gretel, Elijah is Hansel and the cell is their Gingerbread House. The abductor is the ghoul. This makes the abduction scenario all the more nightmarish; a children’s fairy story that turns into something more akin to Nightmare on Elm Street.
Apart from the voices of Elissa and Elijah, the third storyteller we hear from is the lead detective. Detective Superintendent Mairead MacCullagh, is the S.I.O. on this case. She is in the midst of her own tragedy and personal pain which only serves to enhance her empathy for Lena as she sees the close bond between mother and daughter.
Sam Lloyd’s book cleverly weaves together elements of fairy tales with a much darker, infinitely eerier atmosphere. A sense of place is everything as The Memory Wood holds the memories of everyone who has ever died here and Elijah immortalises them by leaving notes in the branches of specific trees he has dedicated to their memory.
But the shining star of this book is Elissa, a young woman whose sense of danger is elevated by her clever and ingenious mind. Operating partly on instinct and partly on her intellect, she realises that she will have to be the architect of her own freedom plan if she is to stand any chance of survival and so she begins a game of cat and mouse in which only one can be the winner.
Verdict: The Memory Wood is a strong and visceral read, capturing the strongest and most fearsome aspects of fairy tales and turning them into a chilling nightmare with little chance of redemption. The pacing is perfect for a story which has many layers and more than a few surprises. Characterisation is spot on; Elissa and Elijah are exceptional characters and Sam Lloyd’s disturbing story captures the reader and holds them hostage all through the many twists and turns of this read. Highly recommended.
Sam Lloyd grew up in Hampshire, making up stories and building secret hideaways in his local woods. These days he lives in Surrey with his wife, three young sons and a dog that likes to howl. The Memory Wood, his debut thriller, has sold in fifteen international territories.