The dark wood in the title of British writer Amanda Craig's third novel (her first to be published in the U.S.) is the same one a certain Florentine poet got lost in 700 years ago. Benedick Hunter is halfway through the journey of our life and, like Dante, discovers that he's wandered into a murky and threatening place, metaphorically speaking.
A London actor whose career is idling and whose novelist wife, with her "air of terrifying competence," has left him for her prosperous publisher, Benedick slinks off to bunk in the attic of a family friend's house, where he can hide from his overbearing father. ("He is a columnist, so judging others comes naturally to him," explains Benedick with false nonchalance.)
When things seem most dire ("I feel like I've had my entire adult life surgically removed"), he stumbles upon a book, "North of Nowhere," written and illustrated by his American mother, Laura, just before she committed suicide when he was 6. Posthumously famous as a creator of ravishing but dark children's books, Laura has always been a bit of a mystery to her feckless son. A girl in one of Laura's stories, a figure Benedick believes is based on Laura herself, is told that to recover her heart's desire she must "wear out an iron staff and a pair of iron shoes in searching." The implication is that Laura was broken by just such a quest, and that Benedick might be, too.
So begins Benedick's journey, which is mostly a trip further in, but also an adventure abroad, as he searches for the truth about his mother's turbulent life. By the time it's done, he'll have traveled as far as South Carolina, but the most fearsome monster he'll encounter is one he carries with him, inherited from his mother; since the novel has been blurbed by authors of books on depression and manic-depression, I trust I won't be giving too much away to say Benedick's demon is madness itself.
But don't think "In a Dark Wood" will appeal only to Benedick's fellow sufferers (numerous though they be). This is a sneakily beguiling book, an improbable but very effective concoction that mixes the hypnotic, elemental forces invoked by Laura's stories with wry humor about such mundane vexations as suddenly having to take care of the kids for the weekend and the indignities of an actor's life. Benedick complains that he hasn't worked for eight months, "except for one day on a drumstick job." Drumstick job? "Period film. There's always some bloke with a chicken bone in his mouth saying 'Indeed, my lord Bishop.'"
Craig also manages to negotiate some complicated territory without resorting to easy answers. Benedick is more than a son seeking the truth about his mother; he's a man who winds up listening to the women of his parents' generation talk about their lives before feminism, and his responses are skeptical as often as they are sympathetic. A character who at first seems minor and likable drops an offhand, vaguely anti-Semitic remark that hints at unexplored darkness. One of the cruelest things Benedick says in the throes of his despair actually does his victim some good. And then there's Benedick's troubling relationship to his own 6-year-old son -- after coasting for so long on his boyish charm, can he become man enough to make a proper father?
"In a Dark Wood" is studded with unforgettable images (a garden where "crocuses flared blue and yellow, gassy jets from the underworld," an apartment with cats "lolling around like dollops of jellied fur"), but Craig keeps things fleet and economical -- there's no need to clot up your story with "literary" prose when you can scatter gems in your wake. Everything Craig is good at -- describing Laura's haunting illustrations so that you'd swear you grew up with them yourself; ratcheting up the intensity of Benedick's mania gradually, so that it takes you almost as long as it takes him to realize he's losing it -- she pulls off so deftly, so unshowily that it's easy to miss the fact that you're in the hands of a master.