Header collage featuring the cover of The Forest of Souls by Danuta Reah (writing as Carla Banks)

The Forest of Souls

No grave is deep enough to bury the sins of war.

“Dense with information and idea about truth and betrayal, asylum and integration, acceptance and hatred, this is a difficult and satisfying crime novel.” – Times Literary Supplement

DANUTA REAH originally writing as CARLA BANKS

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Faith Lange’s beloved grandfather grew up in eastern Europe and experienced the horrors of the Nazi occupation – but does he also have a darker secret?

Seal: Nominated for the CWA Gold Dagger award
Seal: Nominated for the CWA Steel Dagger award

The Forest of Souls

The Forest of Souls is very different from Only Darkness, Silent Playgrounds, Night Angels and Bleak Water, although it does, like them, deal with the darker human emotions and actions. It is an exploration of the horrors of Nazi war crimes in Eastern Europe, and how the effects of these can reverberate through the generations. I wrote a second thriller with an international setting, Strangers, which explores the catastrophic consequences of a clash of beliefs and cultures between the expatriate and the local community in Saudi Arabia.

War crimes

A researcher into events in Minsk during the Nazi occupation is murdered. An investigative journalist, Jake Denbigh, believes he may have located a Nazi war criminal in hiding: successful business man Marek Lange.

Lange is an old man now and in bad health. His granddaughter, Faith, loves her grandfather and is very protective of him, but she can’t deny the fact that somewhere in his past, there is a terrible secret that seems to have haunted him throughout his life.

Nazi occupation of Minsk

Jake Denbigh is determined to uncover the truth, and the key seems to lie with an elderly survivor of the Minsk occupation, Sophia Yevanova, and her son, Antoni Yevanov, a professor at Sheffield University.

Sophia survived the occupation, though she lost her family including her beloved sister Raina, who collaborated in order to survive and who died in a Soviet Prison camp. Sophia forgave her sister for what she did, explaining to Jake, ‘To us, the Nazis came as liberators, at first.’

Kurapaty: The Forest of Souls

In pursuit of his story, Jake travels to Minsk where he sees all the memorials to the atrocities, the parts of the city that are still in ruins, and visits the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, where he encounters images of the execution of the children: 17-year-old Masha Bruskina, and 16-year-old Volodia Shcherbatsevich. He also finds out about the recently-uncovered horrors of the Stalinist massacres carried out in the Kurapaty Forest on the outskirts of Minsk.

Baba Yaga

Running parallel with the modern story is the story of Eva, a young girl growing up in the forests of Belarus with her family, including her brother, Marek. She is haunted by the folk tales she has heard as a child, including the stories of the sinister witch, Baba Yaga, and her house that walks with chicken feet. The book follows Eva’s story up to the Nazi invasion and the days of living under Nazi rule.

Gradually, the two stories come together and Jake understands the secrets about the past that people have been keeping, revealing a story that is as horrific as all the ones he has heard, and that finally reveal the identity of a killer.

How I wrote The Forest of Souls

The Forest of Souls is a very important book to me. My father was born in Belarus and his family endured terrible hardship in the aftermath of the Russian civil war where they came close to starvation. He grew up in Poland, became a cavalry officer and fought the Red Army in the Soviet invasion of 1939. He survived and made it across Europe with some of his compatriots, to join the Polish Free Forces here. But after the war, he couldn’t go back. Like many Polish fighters, he had been declared an enemy of the state by Stalin. He had escaped, but his family had not. He never saw his mother again.

Survivor guilt

I was aware that though he made a successful life here, with a good career and a family, he had to live with crippling survivor guilt. I wanted to write about someone who was suffering from some kind of long-term, crippling guilt that he couldn’t shake off. 

I was also aware that though we know a lot about the horrors of the Holocaust, there were atrocities and secrets of both Stalinism and the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe hidden in archives behind the Iron Curtain.


I had the outline for my story – a researcher, a dangerous secret, a murder; but it didn’t seem to do justice to my subject. I decided I need to go and see for myself. I travelled to Minsk on a research visit, where I tried to track down some records of my father’s family via Belarusian PEN, but mainly to look at the places where the atrocities happened. There was a death camp on the outskirts of Minsk; little-known because there were almost no survivors, fewer than ten.

The economics of atrocity

There is also the site of a little-known atrocity from pre-war Stalinist rule, when thousands of people were shot and buried in mass graves in the Kurapaty Forest on the outskirts of Minsk. A witness spoke of how the killers used to shoot two people through the head from the side, so they could use one bullet and save supplies: the economics of atrocity.

Folk tales

When I came back, I had my story. I had to write about the occupation of Minsk, and about the city that still lives in the shadow of what happened there. The only way to convey the horror seemed to me to use the language and narrative style of folk stories, so I put these sections into the book as we follow the lives of Eva and her brother, Marek.

I love The Forest of Souls, but writing it broke my heart.

The Forest of Souls was originally published under the name Carla Banks, as was Strangers.

Some foreign editions of The Forest of Souls

Here are some of the foreign editions of The Forest of Souls. These may or may not be currently available – check your favourite bookseller.