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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 deceptive simplicity.


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