Fresh Blood

Name: Sam Lloyd

Title of Book: The Memory Wood

'...will linger in your mind long after you have read the final word. '

Elijah has lived in the Memory Wood for as long as he can remember. It’s the only home he’s ever known.

Elissa has only just arrived. And she’ll do everything she can to escape.

When Elijah stumbles across thirteen-year-old Elissa, in the woods where her abductor is hiding her, he refuses to alert the police. Because in his twelve years, Elijah has never had a proper friend. And he doesn’t want Elissa to leave.

Not only that, Elijah knows how this can end. After all, Elissa isn’t the first girl he’s found inside the Memory Wood.

As her abductor’s behaviour grows more erratic, Elissa realises that outwitting strange, lonely Elijah is her only hope of survival. Their cat-and-mouse game of deception and betrayal will determine both their fates, and whether either of them will ever leave the Memory Wood…

This is one of those books that is addictive, love the premise and then have to be very careful how to enthuse people about it whilst not giving the whole plot away!

Lloyd’s debut is narrated by three distinctive voices: Elijah who visits the Memory Wood, Elissa who is trapped underground by an unknown kidnapper and Mairéad, the SIO who is dealing with her own drama whilst under pressure to bring Elissa back home safely. The scenes between Elijah and Elissa are touching, and yet unnerving as if their new-found ‘friendship’ is based upon brinkmanship, Elissa trying to coerce Elijah to help her escape, whilst Elijah wants Elissa to stay, to behave and ultimately be with him forever. This battle of wits is played out between the two perfectly, rising the tension and suspense slowly, addictively pushing you onwards to find out what happens. Will it end up in checkmate for one or a stalemate?

Mairéad, meanwhile has her own personal drama which I won’t detail here, but I feel I am justified that this is more than a novel about a child being taken against her will. ‘The Memory Wood’ is about childhood and motherhood, about the fragility of both and how easily it can be taken away. Lloyd with subtlety brings these key issues to the fore and wraps his tale of suspense around them. Elissa’s resolve to keep calm and rational by using her knowledge of the game of chess lifts this novel from the run of the mill kidnapper thriller. The kidnapper has the feel of a bogeyman for most of the book, giving him a dark, mythological presence.

The solution is a sad case of those few people who believe they have the power and the right to abduct children for their own bizarre or depraved reasons. I read this as more speculation was on the news about Madeliene McCann. For me, it showed that fiction may not be as far from the truth as we’d like to think. This is a suspenseful and highly emotional read which will linger in your mind long after you have read the final word.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) Can you tell us what the inspiration was for the story and these characters in your debut, ‘The Memory Wood?
When our son was born, my partner spent the first weeks in a state of high anxiety. She coped by pre-planning her responses to various life-or-death scenarios. Initially, she focused on everyday newborn dangers like choking. Pretty soon, though, her imagination kicked in. I’d see her staring into the middle distance and when I asked what was up, she’d be wargaming a home invasion or a coffee-shop hostage situation or some other nightmare event. Her anxiety didn’t last long, but the episode stuck with me.

Years later, our son reached the finals of a national chess tournament. The venue was a secondary school in Surrey. Parents were asked to wait outside during matches. As it was a hot day, some sunbathed on the cricket pitch. Others headed into town for coffee. Because I’d forgotten my book, and perhaps because of that seed my partner planted years earlier, I started thinking about how easy it would be for a determined stranger to snatch a child from the venue.

As the tournament progressed, I asked myself more questions. How might events play out if the abducted child possessed an intellect far sharper than the abductor’s? What if the story became one not of physical confinement but ruthless psychological cunning?

By the end of the day I had my protagonist: thirteen-year-old chess prodigy Elissa Mirzoyan, a quietly precocious girl who wakes underground after being snatched on the most important day of her life.

Once I started writing, I learned something that interested me even more about Elissa’s situation. While engaging her abductor in increasingly dangerous mind games, she faces a separate threat even harder to navigate.

It comes in the form of a frail and solitary young boy, Elijah North, who discovers her prison while playing in his local woods. After gaining his trust, Elissa urges Elijah to contact the police. But Elijah thinks he’s just found his first true friend and is determined to keep her for himself. At that point in the story I discovered something about their relationship that knocked me flat. And then I had to finish the book, just to find out how it ended.
2) As I write this there is renewed speculation on the Madeleine McCann case after 13 years. Did the speculation of her abduction form a possible ‘what if’ scenario for ‘The Memory Wood’?
The initial premise struck me at the chess tournament. Saying that, I spent a huge amount of time investigating how police investigate cases of child abduction by a stranger. I pored over training documents, case studies, interview transcripts and news reports. During the editing process, I asked a serving detective inspector to read my draft for any howlers.
3) Elissa is abducted whilst attending a chess tournament and grids her cell like a chessboard. What inspired you to include this in your novel?
Elissa copes with her ordeal by reducing it to the abstraction of a chess game and plans her moves accordingly. Following her abduction she wakes in darkness, tethered to a metal post. She can’t see, so she imagines the floor as a chessboard, populating each square with what she finds. Later, as she works on an escape plan, she uses her imagined board to store and interrogate key memories leading up to her abduction.

I don’t really know the genesis of her various moves. During the writing, Elissa grew so real for me as a character that her scenes felt more like a process of observation than conscious creation.
4) As a parent yourself, were some of the scenes involving Elissa’s incarceration difficult to write?
Elissa and Elijah’s later scenes were harrowing, certainly. By that point in the story, I was hugely invested in both characters and found it impossible to distance myself emotionally. I think that’s a good place for a writer to be.
5) What can we expect next from Sam Lloyd?
Last week I sent my editor the first draft of book two. I’d love to tell you all about it but I can’t, just yet. I can say it’s another thriller. And that it took me to places – in my head and heart – that I never expected to go.
6) What bit of advice would you give to anyone starting out writing their debut? Are you working on anything else at the moment? If so, can you tell us a little about it?
First-off, getting a book published is tough. It always will be tough. Which means you’ve got to believe in yourself and your story almost to the point of arrogance. Otherwise, it’s just too easy to give up. Published writers are stubborn bastards.

Second, we experience the world through all five of our senses. When I read, I’m plunged far deeper into a scene when the writer doesn’t just tell me how it looks.

Third, write for yourself, not the market nor someone you’re trying to impress. Odds-on, the book you’d most like to read is the one you’ll do the best job of writing.
7) Are you a fan of crime fiction? If so, which three crime novels would you like with you if stranded on a desert island?
I love thrillers and crime fiction. With so many incredible stories out there, I’d have to take something I haven’t read. The combination of lockdown and my book deadline has chewed into my reading horribly this year. But top of my TBR pile, when I get back to it – and therefore candidates for the desert island – are Three Hours - Rosamund Lupton, American Dirt - Jeanine Cummins and Power of the Dog - Don Winslow.