Warning: This review contains spoilers.
If 2022 was going to have a defining moment, it would be Catherine Yu’s remarkable debut with her young adult novel Direwood. In its sheer ingenuity as a fresh and thrilling take on vampires and the modern bildungsroman, Direwood is an upcoming release to watch out for.
The book follows sixteen-year-old Aja whose all-perfect sister Fiona goes missing shortly after Fiona’s seventeenth birthday. One night, Aja hears a seductive voice calling to her — it’s Padraic, a hypnotic vampire that wants to take Aja back to his church in the woods and make her either part of his coven or his plaything. The ambiguity of what fate might befall Aja is one of the main conflicts of the novel.
Desperate to find her sister in the church and enthralled by Padraic’s attention, Aja agrees to stay for seven nights. Once in the church, Aja embarks on a quest to find her sister, discovering terrifying secrets beneath the church and about those who live there.
Direwood is uniquely cinematic as a novel; it’s darkly atmospheric and intensely horrifying in the ways that great, gripping storytelling is. Given that nearly the entire book takes place within the confines of the abandoned church, it’s almost surprising that there would be this much suspense and excitement in every page, but that’s what Yu manages to do. Blood-sucking butterflies that turn red after they’ve fed, white caterpillars inching out of floorboards, and rotting bodies devoured from the inside out — there’s so much strong and original imagery here that nuances the novel as more than a book about vampires. All of this is set in the sort of small Michigan town perfect for horror films.
One has to applaud and appreciate Yu for making her protagonist Chinese and integrating racialized struggles on a subtle level. In Direwood, the character’s identity takes a backseat to the supernatural but still presents itself authentically. The combination of the predominantly white suburban setting and Aja’s desire to be seen plays wonderfully into the plot itself. The fact that Yu allows Aja’s need to belong to serve as social commentary without emphasizing it as such is extremely thoughtful. It reckons with what Asian identity might mean in the context of a young adult fantasy novel about vampires, a genre that isn’t traditionally known for centering Asians.
It’s difficult to pick at anything in the book other than the fact that it was much too short — Yu has seemingly mastered most, if not all, elements of narrative there are. The smooth integration of sensory details into her writing is one of the selling points, especially since everything is just so visceral. Direwood is magnetic in that once you’ve started, it feels impossible to stop, which is a great indicator of a novel’s quality.
It’s this same kind of magnetism that underlies Aja’s fascination with Padraic after he claims her as his “favorite.” It’s a dynamic that makes complete sense when juxtaposed with all Aja’s insecurities about her perfect sister and never being first choice. While the relationship between Aja and Padraic could have been more developed (particularly given his role in the later resolution of Fiona’s “disappearance”), there is a kind of allure found in the fact that Aja’s infatuation is rooted in a gaping emotional need. Even when there’s the omnipresent sense that the two can never be together given just how unsettling Padraic is as a person, Yu still leaves us with a sense of burrowing hope, even if that hope ultimately transitions to darkness.
The insertion of the Bluebeard tale, combined with Padraic’s desire to always find his next “bride,” in Direwood is a reimagining of the tale that summons an all-familiar dread. Coupled with the grotesque surroundings, the novel gives an entirely different perspective on what it means to come of age. The theme of “molting” is actively displayed in caterpillars turning into butterflies and humans turning into monsters. The process is so creatively done and frightening at the same time, reflective of Yu’s literary prowess.
With the ending, it’s worth questioning to what extent Aja has “molted” to be different from her sister: whether or not the realization that Padraic claimed Aja’s sister before her has an effect on her. Arguably, Yu didn’t quite explore that enough as the ending felt a bit rushed. It would have been nice to examine Aja’s feelings about Fiona a bit more. Some questions are left unfulfilled, the main one being: did the fact that Fiona was seemingly Padraic’s actual “favorite” negatively affect Aja’s connection to him? The insecurity that Padraic would prefer her sister was what Aja feared the most about wanting to be with the vampire. That insecurity being revealed as reality should be considered a shocking betrayal: Aja’s status as Padraic’s favorite is implied to be false.
Yet Yu dismisses this aspect of betrayal all too quickly once it’s shown to be true. Fiona is found to be literally wearing the bridal gown meant for Aja and oddly enough, Aja seems to be unfazed by the fact that she was essentially a consolation prize to his supposed lover. This Jane Eyre-like parallel had a lot of potential, but unfortunately tapers off as if the story was hurriedly resolved. Even though the conclusion is beautifully written and serves as the most predictable manifestation of Aja’s character arc, there’s still a desire for something more from the ending than what it’s confined to. At the end of the journey, some of Yu’s ideas get a little muddled in fog, just like the fog that surrounds the church.
With Direwood, however, Yu has set up a deeply compelling forest of a story. When a forest is this dark and this deep, there’s no denying that it’s easy to get lost. To her credit, Yu paves her own path, and it’s a path that feels — and leads — truly out of this world.