Book Review: Before Familiar Woods

front cover of Before Familiar Woods

Before Familiar Woods: A Novel by Ian Pisarcik

Two teenaged boys from North Falls, Vermont are found dead. Three years after that tragedy, their fathers disappear. Those events occur right away in this amazing novel.

Ruth Fenn and Della Downing are the unfortunate characters who have to bear the burdens of killed sons and missing husbands. They investigate in separate ways to try to find out what happened to their husbands. In this storyline, we spend time with Ruth, as she’s one of the two main characters.

The other is Milk Raymond, a young man who has returned to town after serving overseas in the military. He takes custody of his son because the mother has left. Milk rents a place to stay with his son Daniel, but Milk needs to find a job.

With the setup of the tragic events, this book sounds like it could be a suspense thriller. And there are thrilling parts.

But to me, the book was more about how people deal with the absences of loved ones. In addition to the absences of Ruth’s son and husband, her mother has memory issues. Daniel Raymond first had to deal with Milk’s absence, and now must deal with his mother’s.

The book has a steady, deliberate pace as the characters struggle to gain understanding and footholds. And throughout, the book describes the small Vermont town and the woods around it.

In this book’s blurb, we learn it’s the first novel by Ian Pisarcik. So I knew that going into the story. And after reading it, I thought, “What the hell? He’s this good on his first book?!”

Why that reaction? Before Familiar Woods has a precision of language along the lines of what I admire of Cormac McCarthy, Karen Russell, and George Saunders. We’re talking sharp and vivid. There are some lines that stopped me in my reading tracks. I read the lines several times because they so finely conveyed the ideas. For example, the sentence after how Ruth Fenn “had treated her son like a tanager that she could hear but not see.” I won’t put the sentence here, from concern that would lessen the impact if you read the book.

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