Onyx reviews: The Ruins by Scott Smith
Thirteen years ago, Scott Smith published his debut novel, A Simple Plan. He
also wrote the script for the motion picture adaptation, for which he received
an Academy Award nomination. This acclaim produced more screenwriting
opportunities, so there have been no other novels since A Simple Plan—until now.
He did work on another book for five years before abandoning it after writing
nearly 1000 pages.
Two years ago, his agent suggested that he write a scary campfire tale. The
result of this suggestion is Smith's sophomore release, The Ruins, which might
be described as The Lord of the Flies meets LOST. Survival crossed with a
growing sense of (possibly supernatural) mystery.
Two young couples are in Cancun for a three-week vacation during the heat of
August before embarking on their adult lives-new professions for Eric and Stacy,
and medical school for the Jeff and Amy. Amy, the pouty complainer and
flirtatious Stacy (nickname: Spacy) are best friends. Jeff, highly organized and
self-confident, and Eric, a jokester whose penchant for drama covers his
diffidence, are friendly, but not friends.
In Mexico, they hang out with three Greeks who don't speak English. While scuba
diving, they befriend a German tourist, and thus begins their misadventure.
Mathias's younger brother Henrich followed a woman into the jungle to an
archeological dig and Mathias is worried he won't return in time for their
flight back to Germany.
He convinces the four Americans to help him track down his brother. They, in
turn, invite one of the Greeks, who jokingly dubs himself Pablo. The trip
involves a bus ride to Coba, a rough taxi journey many miles down a little-used
dirt road and a trek through the jungle. The taxi driver tries to turn them away
from their destination-the place is no good, he warns in broken English-but
they're on an adventure and will not be dissuaded.
Following Henrich's hand-drawn map, they battle the heat, insects, snakes, and
the stolid residents of a remote Mayan village who want nothing to do with
them-at first. The men of the village-who also speak no English-try to divert
the six travelers. However, once they pass a certain point along a muddy and
vine-covered trail leading to the archeological site at the top of a hill, the
Mayans suddenly produce guns, bows and arrows and prevent them from turning
back. When they discover Henrich's arrow-pierced body among the vines at the
base of the hill, they realize how serious the Mayans are.
Smith deftly creates mounting suspense and horror. He sketches the four
Americans, outlines their relationships, and then drops them into the worst
predicament they've ever experienced. The book has no chapter breaks, which
removes the need for artificial moments of suspense. The story rolls along with
building momentum-just as a campfire story does.
Jeff, who knows-in theory-how to extract drinking water from urine and how long
the human body can survive without food, also realizes it will be over a week
before they are missed and how difficult their path will be to follow. They have
no cell phones, no fuel for a signal fire, and a group of hostile enemies
circling the base of the hill to prevent their escape.
Inability to communicate plays a major part in The Ruins. The adventurers cannot
negotiate with their captors, and can't even converse with Pablo, who is
critically injured shortly after they arrive at the ruins. Smith restricts the
character viewpoint to the four Americans, which further isolates readers from
Mathias and Pablo.
Some characters cling to the fantasy that the other two Greeks will be their
salvation. However, even if they do follow the map Pablo left for them, Pablo
can't speak to them, and the other five would need to find some way to warn them
off lest they become ensnared in the same trap.
The travelers must ration their limited resources-a little food, a little
water-and hunker down against the blistering heat . . . and something else.
Smith reveals the true nature of their peril gradually. Readers and characters
come to accept what is happening at the same pace. Over the course of 250 pages
the author sets his tentacles in and doesn't let go. Once things become dire,
relationships and characters are tested. The young women bicker. The couples
fight. Mathias is isolated. Pablo suffers unspeakable tortures. Fundamental
strengths become liabilities.
As the situation worsens, readers will wonder how Smith can possible resolve a
seemingly hopeless situation. His daring answer is all the more profound for its
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