Study Guide

In The Woods Memories and the Past

By Tana French

Memories and the Past

Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. (Prologue.1)

The first line of the book colors Rob's memories of Knocknaree with an almost-perfect Sepia-toned Instagram filter, just as many childhood memories are. But note French's word choice of "stolen." It's a chilling word that foreshadows the crime, and Rob's childhood being stolen from him, along with his memories.

I don't remember very many specifics about that evening, and according to Cassie neither does she. (1.36)

While in the middle of the case, all the nights Rob and Cassie spend together kind of blend into one. We're not sure how Rob knows what Cassie does and doesn't remember, though, because by the end of the book they're not on speaking terms.

runner heels dug into the earth of the bank, leaf-shadows dappling a red T-shirt, fishing-rods of branches and string, slapping at midges: Shut up! You'll scare the fish— (2.23)

This little italicized fragment is one of the first of Rob's repressed memories that resurfaces. It's a good way to capture memory. There's no real beginning, no real end, and it just pops up out of nowhere.

A hair clip. (2.74)

These three words, and this tiny object, conjure up a bunch of memories for Rob that he had forgotten. It's amazing how something so insignificant (something a young boy would hardly have noticed) brings so many memories flooding back.

"I wondered. Is that in the file, do you know, or do you just remember it?" (3.40)

Rob gets defensive about his memories when Cassie asks about them. He feels insecure that he can't remember such a major event in his life.

I had been bracing myself quite hard for this, actually. I think I'd had some vague idea that seeing the evidence would trigger a dramatic flash of memories; I hadn't exactly expected to end up in a fetal position on the basement floor. (6.138)

When Rob has a repressed memory resurface, it literally knocks him off his feet. Remembering for him isn't just mental, it can be almost physical, too.

I wondered if […] all the answers we wanted were locked away behind the strange dark gateways of [Jessica's] mind. (9.290)

Memories don't mean a thing to anyone else if you can't express them, and Jessica, with whatever her disability is, cannot communicate what she thinks.

I started trying—for the first time, really—to remember what had happened in the wood. (10.50)

Rob treats memory, and retrieving memories from the woods of his brain, as some sort of skill. He has to practice how to remember, through a Zen-like meditation process. It's like a survival tactic.

It was the smell of it—a wistful blend of sandalwood and chamomile that went straight for my subconscious, setting memories flickering like fish in murky water. (10.104)

The sense of smell can be an incredible gateway to memory. Smelling the scents inside Jamie's house takes Rob back instantly to the time he spent there when he was a child.

I think I can say, without flattering myself, that I've always had an ironically good memory. (11.51)

This is the least self-aware thing anyone has ever said ever. Rob has the worst memory ever. He has forgotten almost his entire childhood, and even during the case he forgets about the missing trowel until the eleventh hour of investigation.