What Lies In The Woods Summary, Characters and Themes

What Lies in the Woods is a thriller novel by Kate Alice Marshall published in 2023. The story revolves around Naomi Shaw, who was attacked in the woods as a child. She and her two friends testified against a man who was subsequently convicted of the crime.

Twenty-two years later, Naomi is drawn back to her hometown when one of her childhood friends wants to reconnect after the attacker dies in prison. As Naomi delves into the past, she begins to question everything she thought she knew about the attack and the events that followed.


In the quaint town of Chester, three young friends, Naomi, Cass, and Liv, spent a summer immersed in a game of their own creation, imagining themselves as Greek goddesses. 

Their idyllic world shattered when Naomi was brutally attacked in the woods, leaving her with seventeen stab wounds. The girls identified a local man, Alan Michael Stahl, as the perpetrator, and their testimony led to his conviction. 

However, the truth remained buried for over twenty years.

Years later, Naomi, now a photographer living in Seattle, receives a summons from Liv, urging her to return to Chester. 

Liv reveals a shocking secret: she has discovered the identity of a skeleton the girls found during their childhood adventures, and she intends to expose the truth. Their plans are thwarted when Liv is found dead, an apparent suicide. 

Naomi, driven by a nagging doubt, embarks on a quest to uncover the real circumstances surrounding Liv’s death and the identity of the skeleton.

Ethan Schreiber, a true-crime podcaster, arrives in Chester to investigate Naomi’s past attack. His skepticism towards Stahl’s guilt prompts him to join forces with Naomi.

Together, they uncover the skeleton’s identity, a young woman named Jessi Walker, who disappeared two years before Naomi’s assault. The investigation takes a sinister turn as they suspect Jessi’s killer may also be responsible for Naomi’s attack.

As Naomi and Ethan delve deeper into Jessi’s past, they uncover a web of dark secrets involving Cass’s brother, Oscar, and her father, Jim. 

Naomi’s suspicions fall on the Green family, but a shocking revelation forces her to confront a devastating truth: Liv, driven by childhood trauma and a warped sense of friendship, was the one who stabbed her. 

The girls’ families conspired to protect Liv, pinning the blame on Stahl.

Meanwhile, Ethan’s true identity is revealed: he is Stahl’s son, seeking redemption for his father’s crimes. 

Naomi grapples with this revelation while still determined to expose Jim Green’s involvement in Jessi’s death.

With Cody Benham’s help, Naomi uncovers the truth about Jessi’s demise: an accidental fall during an argument with Cody, who then abandoned her in the woods, leading to her tragic death in the cave where her remains were found. 

Cody, fearing exposure, had also killed Liv to silence her.

The final confrontation unfolds in the woods, where Cass reveals her complicity in the cover-up and her manipulation of Liv. 

In a shocking twist, Cody kills Cass to protect his own secrets, then turns on Naomi. 

A desperate chase ensues, ending in the cave where Naomi sought refuge. Injured but alive, she contacts Ethan, revealing Cass’s role in the attack.

In the aftermath, Naomi recovers from her wounds, Cody is arrested for the murders of Liv and Cass, and Jessi’s remains are finally laid to rest. 

Naomi and Ethan, forever bound by shared trauma, begin the arduous journey towards healing and trust.

What Lies In The Woods Summary


Naomi Shaw Cunningham

The protagonist of the novel, Naomi is a complex character deeply affected by the traumatic events of her childhood. 

As an adult, she grapples with survivor’s guilt, unresolved anger, and a lingering fear of the woods. Naomi’s pursuit of the truth surrounding the skeleton and her attack drives the narrative, revealing her resilience and determination. 

However, her trust issues and emotional scars often hinder her relationships and her ability to move forward.

Cassidy “Cass” Green

Cass is portrayed as a manipulative and controlling figure, driven by a need for power and a desire to maintain control over her friendships. 

She is revealed to be the mastermind behind Naomi’s stabbing, driven by jealousy and a desire to secure Liv’s exclusive friendship. 

Cass’s actions demonstrate the damaging effects of unchecked ambition and the lengths to which some individuals will go to maintain control.

Olivia “Liv” Barnes

Liv is a troubled character who struggles with mental illness throughout her life. Her vulnerability and instability make her susceptible to manipulation, and she ultimately becomes a pawn in Cass’s scheme. 

While Liv’s actions are harmful, the novel also portrays her as a victim of her circumstances and her own fragile mental state.

Ethan Schreiber

Ethan initially appears as a true crime podcaster interested in Naomi’s case. However, his true identity as Alan Michael Stahl’s son adds a layer of complexity to his character. 

Ethan’s search for the truth about his father’s crimes and his growing connection with Naomi create a compelling subplot. His presence challenges Naomi’s assumptions and forces her to confront the complexities of justice and forgiveness.

Cody Benham

Cody is a complex character who harbors deep-seated anger and resentment. 

His involvement in Jessi’s death and his subsequent murders of Liv and Cass stem from his desire to protect himself and maintain control over the secrets of the past. 

Cody’s actions illustrate the destructive consequences of guilt, anger, and the lengths to which individuals will go to conceal their crimes.

Minor Characters

The novel also features several minor characters who play significant roles in the narrative, including Naomi’s parents, Liv’s parents, Oscar Green, and Jim Green. 

These characters contribute to the overall atmosphere of secrecy and manipulation that pervades the story, highlighting the complex dynamics of family and community in the aftermath of trauma.


Maturity and the Loss of Innocence

Marshall masterfully explores the profound impact of trauma on the transition from childhood to adulthood. 

The novel opens with Naomi, Cass, and Liv immersed in their fantastical game of goddesses, symbolizing their innocence and the power of imagination. However, the brutal attack on Naomi shatters this idyllic world, forcing them to confront the harsh realities of violence and betrayal. 

As the narrative unfolds, we witness the lasting consequences of this trauma on their lives, shaping their choices, relationships, and ultimately, their identities. 

Naomi’s struggle to reconcile her childhood memories with the truth of what happened highlights the complexities of memory and the challenges of healing.

The Destructive Consequences of Secrets and Lies

A web of deceit permeates the narrative, as each character harbors secrets that threaten to unravel their lives. 

The girls’ initial decision to conceal the discovery of the skeleton sets in motion a chain of events fueled by fear and self-preservation. This concealment creates a fertile ground for misunderstandings, suspicion, and ultimately, violence. 

The weight of these secrets gradually corrodes the bonds of friendship and family, leading to devastating consequences. 

Marshall skillfully portrays the toll that dishonesty takes on individuals and the community as a whole, emphasizing the importance of truth and accountability in the pursuit of justice and healing.

Jealousy and Tension Within Friendships Amid Gendered Expectations

The intricate dynamics between Naomi, Cass, and Liv highlight the complexities of female friendships, particularly in the face of societal expectations and gender roles. 

As young girls, their bond is forged through shared experiences and a sense of belonging. 

However, as they mature, jealousy and competition begin to seep into their relationships, fueled by societal pressures to conform to certain ideals of femininity and beauty. 

Cass, in particular, struggles with feelings of inadequacy and resentment towards Naomi, who embodies a more traditionally desirable image. 

These tensions ultimately contribute to the tragic events that unfold, illustrating the destructive power of envy and the importance of fostering healthy, supportive relationships.

Voyeuristic Fascination with Violent Events

The novel also delves into society’s morbid curiosity with violence and tragedy, as exemplified by the true crime podcast that brings Ethan to Chester. 

The media’s sensationalized portrayal of crimes often overlooks the profound suffering of victims and their families, reducing their experiences to mere entertainment. 

This voyeurism can be harmful, as it can desensitize individuals to violence and perpetuate harmful stereotypes. 

Marshall subtly critiques this phenomenon by highlighting the ethical dilemmas faced by Ethan as he grapples with his own motivations for investigating Naomi’s story. 

The novel encourages readers to reflect on their own consumption of true crime media and the potential consequences of this fascination.