Alfred A. Knopf / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
Publication Date: 07-11-2006
321 Pages; $24.95
Date Reviewed: 06-30-06
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2006
I'm posting this review of Scott Smith's 'The Ruins' early, because I hope I can save a few readers from the inevitable pollution that will result as word of this novel leaks out. My advice is simple. Read no more about the book than you'll read here. 'The Ruins' is a good book, but one that can be thoroughly spoiled even by the well-intentioned reviewer. It's a novel of suspense, of teeth-grinding terror, but if you happen on much more of the plot than the most basic launch-point summary, then you're not likely to enjoy the novel as thoroughly as possible. And it is possible to enjoy this novel, assuming that is, that you enjoy grinding your teeth while in a state of reading-induced suspenseful terror.
Are you still with me? Good, because Smith's new novel ventures into territory both similar and very different from his now close-to-long-long-lost first novel, 'A Simple Plan'. The cast of characters is small, and the action is closely watched and confined. 'The Ruins' kicks off when four twenty-somethings – Jeff and Amy, Eric and Stacy–on a post-collegiate fling in Mexico's Cozumel meet Mathias, another twenty-something from Germany, who speaks mostly German, and decent English, and the Greeks, who speak only Greek. The seven sort-of bond, in the best, badly-translated gesturing fashion of youth on vacation. They flirt. The Greeks acquire joke names; Juan, Don Quixote, Pablo. The group gets drunk together, and they wake up with mutual hangovers. Mathias attempts to explain that he and his brother are leaving, but that his brother has gone on a day-drive/hike to "the ruins," there to pursue female company. The brother has not returned, and on a lark, the four Americans and Pablo decide to accompany Mathias in search of his brother. After an easy trip, they find themselves in the jungle. In a place from whence they may not emerge.
It's a bit of a problem that the novel can be so easily spoiled, but that aside, 'The Ruins' is a finely written and observed piece of dislocating, terrorizing suspense. 'The Ruins' does not hinge on some "He's really dead/She's got a penis" plot twist. But a major part of the fun is finding out just what is menacing our feckless twenty-something characters, and seeing how Smith develops this. But of course, none of this would matter if Smith didn't do a fairly spectacular job of creating his characters, of making these rather selfish and somewhat shallow, well, youthful, folks, into people we care about.
That we do care about Jeff, Amy, Stacy, Eric, Mathias and "Pablo" is the result of some fairly sophisticated writing that looks fairly simple. Jeff is the rock, the backbone of the Americans, a pre-med graduate who is just full of facts and opinions about those facts. He verges on boorish now and again, but always swings back into a sympathetic orbit–barely. Amy, his girlfriend, is a bit prissy, and nothing special, really. But her affection for Jeff is genuine, as is her affection for her friend Stacy. Stacy, also known as "Spacey" is the kind of girl everyone knows at least one of, a bit flirty and a bit flighty. Eric is the devil-may-care jock of the bunch, but not obnoxiously so. They're just four not-so-odd kids in Mexico. Nothing too strange here, except that odd lingual disconnect.
Nobody speaks particularly good Spanish, nor German, except Mathias, nor Greek, except "Pablo". So when the six of them stagger off in the morning on a fun adventure, there's a nicely understated edge, a chasm between the four Americans, the German, the Greek and everything and everyone around them. Since the novel is written in English, we don’t learn too much about Mathias, other than that he seems somewhat to the right of Jeff in terms of rectitude and attitude. A careful, steady guy, not given to hysterics. "Pablo" is another type of person we've all met. He's a young man who speaks the universal language of "party." Unfortunately for "Pablo", for everyone, really, where they're headed "party" is an option that is rapidly closed off.
'The Ruins' runs on an engine of tightly observed prose and an ever-present sense of menace. The menace begins the second the novel begins because Smith is great at milking the understated fear that anyone feels when traveling in a country where they don’t speak the language. Smith's strengths lie in what he does not tell and what he does not show. Letting the reader fill in the edges and then see the colors of the growing terror has always been the horror writer's best option. This is not to say that Smith is stingy. There's ample payoff to all the careful buildup. But 'The Ruins' is a story where the buildup is of equal importance to the payoff.
Smith operates within the idiom of the mystery and the horror writer. He's concealing the menace here, and readers will have to let him tease it out. It's worth waiting for, assuming you like horror novels. He develops it quite well, and once you twig to what is going on, he provides some nicely unpleasant surprises.
It helps that Smith is a fine writer. His prose is liquid, sensuous and gripping–each in the proper moment. He suggests a lot of wider themes, beginning with the concept of dislocation and venturing into responsibility, ranging into our vague relationships and the consequences of our casual world. But these are mostly left for the reader to discover and muse. First and foremost, we have a jungle journey that is well-researched and entrancingly told. Smith doesn't get infatuated with his own importance, a key strength here, since the underpinnings of the novel are not unassailably strong. The fact that the novel can be re-told and summarized in such a manner as to lessen the enjoyment is most assuredly a weakness. But it is a weakness that suggests a strength as well. I managed to get in here with no more preparation than I'm giving you, and I enjoyed the hell out of 'The Ruins'. It's not a book for the Ages or all ages. It's a book to put you in the hypnotic trance required to scare the heck out of you, to subtly create for the reader that gulf between humans that nothing other than a scream can easily bridge.