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The House in the Pines


The House in the Pines

Ana Reyes’ debut novel, THE HOUSE IN THE PINES, is an exhilarating, eerie and atmospheric thriller that is already joining the ranks of THE LAST THING HE TOLD ME, THE LAST MRS. PARRISH and THE CLUB as Reese’s Book Club selections.

“Deep in these woods, there is a house that’s easy to miss. Most people, in fact, would take one look and insist it’s not there. And they wouldn’t be wrong, not completely.” Where a crumbling foundation covered in weeds makes its home in the woods of the Berkshires, Maya saw the bounds of reality and truth broken, her innocence stripped away and her best friend killed. But that was during the summer when she was 18, shortly before she went to Boston University on a full-ride to become a writer. She hasn’t accomplished her goals exactly, but she is more or less happy and fulfilled, particularly in her relationship with kindhearted, stable Dan.

"A riveting whodunit combined with an unreliable narrator and a dual timeline is an instant win for me. Even more impressive is how stellar Reyes’ writing is: it's crisp and brisk, but also complex and expertly woven."

Through building a home with Dan and keeping her head down at her garden center job, Maya has tried to put that awful, hazy summer behind her. And then she sees the video, “Girl Dies on Camera.” Not quite viral, but popular enough to show up on her feed, the video is a grainy shot from the security camera of a 1950s-style diner in her hometown of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. In it, a man and a woman sit at a booth, the man talking nonstop while the woman seems to lose focus. Suddenly, with only 10 seconds remaining, the woman drops dead on the Formica table. When the man looks up in shock, he makes eye contact with the camera and Maya sees him: Frank Bellamy, the man who killed her best friend seven years ago.

The connection alone would be enough to drive anyone crazy, but Reyes quickly casts Maya as an unreliable narrator. Not only is she remembering an event that occurred seven years ago, when she was an unaware and overly trusting teen, she is currently experiencing Klonopin withdrawal, which has left her increasingly isolated as she has hidden it from her boyfriend for more than two years. The symptoms include fevers, night sweats, seizures and hallucinations. Although she feels certain she is not inventing Frank’s eyes in the video, there is enough room for doubt that even she starts to question herself. The only way to find out the truth, it seems, is to go back to her mother’s and revisit --- physically, emotionally and mentally --- Pittsfield, where Frank still lives, along with her drug-addled, teenage-filtered memories of what really happened the last time a girl keeled over dead in Frank’s presence.

Alternating between Maya’s childhood --- along with memories of the stories of her deceased father, killed in Guatemala’s Silent Holocaust --- and her present-day search for answers, Reyes presents readers with a relatable yet deeply unreliable narrator whose fear, even when it seems most unrealistic, leaps off the page, pulling readers with it. In addition to her withdrawal symptoms, Maya reveals that she is genetically predisposed to mental illness, which adds urgency and a creeping sensation of doubt to her already high-energy, paranoid state. Even with uncertainties adding up, it becomes clear that something happens to girls when Frank is around, especially as she digs deeper into his most recent “victim’s” relationship with him.

Like Maya, the young woman was obsessed with Frank before her death, isolated from most of her friends and loved ones as a result. And she spoke of a cabin in the woods where she planned to live with Frank. Maya can recall with chilling accuracy every detail of the cabin, from its cathedral ceilings to its rustic decor and crackling fireplace. But her memories stop there, often with a splitting headache and flashes of something far more sinister. If she is to reclaim her present, continue her life, and find justice not just for this woman but also for her beloved best friend, she will have to return to the cabin and piece together her hazy, unbelievable memories.

A riveting whodunit combined with an unreliable narrator and a dual timeline is an instant win for me. Even more impressive is how stellar Reyes’ writing is: it's crisp and brisk, but also complex and expertly woven. The control she has over the narrator and her hazy memories is reminiscent of Gillian Flynn. But while the trope of an unreliable narrator has become common in the genre, Reyes doesn’t rely on shocking twists alone. Instead, she uses Maya’s voice and the mystery of her friend’s death as only the foundation, building upon them the account of a complex female friendship, a literary connection spanning continents, and a compelling, timely story of substance abuse.

The result is several books’ worth of mysteries, dysfunctional relationships and unsolvable murders. Yet the novel never once lets up the tension or readability. While the ending is a tad rushed, this is a common misstep for first-time authors. In no way does it take away from the cleverness or addictive nature of this startling debut. THE HOUSE IN THE PINES announces the arrival of a brilliant new voice in the thriller genre --- a confident, assured writer who already is making popular tropes her own.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on January 20, 2023

The House in the Pines
by Ana Reyes