"The Forest of Souls" is like one of those slices of turquoise that has striations running through it, stripes of some other substance that is very much not turquoise. In this cross-section of mined earth, brought like a landed fish to the surface and polished as a pendant, you see a stripe of brilliant sky blue, bisected by something dirt brown, bisected by brilliant blue again, as if it had never been interrupted. The two substances intermingle, but they never blend. In this sense, "The Forest of Souls" mirrors the very topics it addresses.
"The Forest of Souls" could be a beach book, one you read just as a page-turner, just for fun. But it could also be a book that causes you to cry, to ponder, to never forget, and to complicate just what atrocity, and which victims, you are remembering. Similarly, this multilayered structure mirrors the presence of the past in the present, the presence of immigrant cultures in mainstream cultures, and the presence of private secrets in public personas. It mirrors the persistence of marginalized histories that canonical narratives work to silence for expediency's sake.
"The Forest of Souls" takes place in modern-day England. People drive around in cars and call the police when there is trouble and are polite to each other. But every character in this comfortable, cool, crisp, civil landscape is haunted, in one way or another, by a very different world, a world of forests and swamps, of fairy tale witches and wolves who devour children, a world where even log houses constructed deep in sun-dappled, birch and pine forests are never far enough away from the outside world to be safe. This haunted and haunting Eastern Europe - Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania - is a land of unspeakable atrocity and deeply evil, treacherous human specimens. Or maybe not. Maybe it is a land of heartbreaking and selfless self-sacrifice and a heroism that is never told, never honored, the kind of utterly tragic heroism that dies, silent, unrecorded, with its martyred hero. One is not sure, in "The Forest of Souls," until the very last page.
"The Forest of Souls," is, thus, a meditation on guilt and innocence, and an instructional manual on how twisted those apparently diametrically opposed substances became in Nazi- and Soviet-era Eastern Europe.
On the other hand, "The Forest of Souls" is a straightforward murder mystery. An apparently innocuous university researcher, in a library, no less, is garroted. Whodunit? The book drops clues and proceeds methodically toward a satisfying and genuinely surprisingly revelation. The search entails a glamorous Russian émigré, a macho journalist, and a creepily realistically disgruntled ex-husband. It's an interesting crew, and there is a low-key romance.
The murder mystery here intrigued me. I did what one does when reading a murder mystery: the add and subtract calculations that cause one to pick a favorite candidate as the murderer.
The historical references educated and saddened me. "The Forest of Souls" references some lesser known horrors of the World-War-II era - not the more famous Auschwitz but the lesser known Maly Trostenets extermination camp, and the uncounted thousands, forgotten by the wider world, murdered by Soviets in the Kurapaty Forest.
One very worthy feature of "The Forest of Souls" is that one can read it as one likes. If you really just want a beach book, a murder mystery, you can choose not to linger on the passages that touch on atrocity. But if you want to ponder these passages and everything they imply, you have a book to chew on for a long time. Danuta Reah, writing here under the pseudonym Carla Banks, keeps her cards close to her chest. She does not harangue or push an agenda. It's clear, though, that she cares about the millions killed in places most people haven't even heard about, and the diabolically complex patchwork of competing ideologies and atrocities that dropped like a curse on the peasants and working people of Eastern Europe in the twentieth century.