Maggie St. James, author of gothic fairytales and his latest case, has been missing for five years following a series of scandals when he first sets out in search of her. But as Travis follows the traces only he can see, he stumbles upon Pastoral, a community not marked on any map – and the surrounding woods hold their dark secrets close.
There are so many things I loved about this book. Shea Ernshaw builds all that story up, pulling the readers into following Travis as he follows Maggie, only to take a dramatic left turn and chop it off at the knees. A History of Wild Places is her adult debut, and that’s the kind of move that requires confidence and skill – luckily for us, she’s clearly got both in spades. Instead of losing momentum, it throws the reader just slightly off balance, and lets her build up that sense of unease behind the bucolic (and beautifully evocative) scenes of rural life in Pastoral. The timeline, too, is deliberately vague, and the sunny and peaceful scenes of this isolated community feel just slightly askew – we can never quite be sure if we’re just imagining the feeling that something is wrong, and I truly appreciate an author who can conjure such an effective tone.
The majority of the book is told in three shifting viewpoints, through the lens of Pastoral residents, ones who gradually come to share the reader’s sense that something just doesn’t quite add up. There’s a necessity to those three points of view that made an impression on me – this wasn’t just a style choice, it helps to craft the story and pull the pieces of this fascinating puzzle together in a way that feels organic. We learn about the characters as we spend time with them, too, in a way that feels like getting closer to them, and again in a very natural way.
Shea Ernshaw hasn’t just given us a beautifully written story of gradually mounting suspense, she’s created another world and invited us to see if we can be the ones to find our way out. A History of Wild Places is hauntingly beautiful, pulls the reader in, and had me torn between desperately wanting to reach the end, and just as certainly wanting to be able to keep reading it for longer. It’s the best kind of dilemma – one I’d recommend in a heartbeat.