Readers of The Den may...[have a] feeling of claustrophobia, partly because Abi Maxwell describes the woodlands so vividly, but more because her tight focus rarely swerves from the sisters ... while the analogies between the pairs of sisters are clear, the reasons why their stories should be interlaced are less so ... though Elspeth herself is vividly present, and her relationship with her son, Evan, fetchingly evoked, her story seems like an interpolation into Henrietta’s rather than a crucial or even complementary element. It is less convincing, too. The exploits and emotions of Henrietta and Jane are vivid and credible given their mother leaves them to do whatever they like while she spends her days painting in her studio ... The haunting coyote tale infuses the histories of the four sisters. Their differing characters are rendered precisely and powerfully, as are many of the settings, especially those in New Hampshire and Maine. There’s thus a lot to enjoy in this novel, as well as some things to ponder.
This is an ungainly book, more like two unfinished novels loosely stitched together than a coherent, multifaceted whole. Jane narrates her own story, but she never emerges as a real person. That she remains a shadow of her older sister makes psychological sense, but it makes for a boring character. And Henrietta herself is, in the sections narrated by Jane, little more than a sexually precocious loner and a bit of a jerk. It’s hard to see what makes her so fascinating that Jane doesn’t seem to have a life of her own even before Henrietta’s disappearance rips a hole in everything. And Henrietta remains inscrutable even when she’s describing her experiences in her own voice. More than that, the portion of the novel that covers Henrietta’s early days on her own is simply incredible ... The sections of the book set in the 19th century are slightly more compelling, but, even here, the text reads more like notes toward a novel than a finished work. Odd and unsatisfying.