Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Tana French writes a novel of family terror.

I enjoyed Tana French’s first novel, In the Woods, and I really looked forward to this one. It is set in Dublin, and it’s really a meditation on the meaning of family.

Faithful Place

Tana French’s Faithful Place (416 pages, Viking Adult, $25.95) takes its title from a (fictional) street in the working class “Liberties” section of Dublin. Frank Mackey, the hero of the novel, escaped from this world long before the novel opens. When he was in his late teens, he and his girlfriend, Rosie Daly, who is also from the neighborhood, planned to meet late at night and take the ferry to England, where they hoped they would be able to start a new life together. When Rosie didn’t show up that night--Frank found a note to suggest that she might have run out on him—Frank decided to take off anyway. If he didn’t leave Ireland, at least he moved to a completely different part of Dublin.

After a few false starts, Frank worked into a position as a undercover detective with the Dublin police. In the twenty-some years since the events on Faithful Place, Frank has earned a name for himself as a tough and resourceful detective. He has also been married and divorced, and he has a daughter who means all the world to him.

Frank is a hard-bitten character—maybe familiar to some from French’s novel The Likeness—and we are led to believe that a lot of his anger and his hatreds come from his disappointment on that night so many years ago.

When a young girl’s decomposed body is found under a slab in the basement of a house on Faithful Place, the house where Frank and Rosie planned to meet that night, all the old pain is dredged up again.

Frank returns to Faithful Place, but that means confronting his family, all of whom still live there. He has not communicated with his family since that night, in part because he blamed them for what happened. His father was locked in some kind of battle with Rosie’s father, and the public and belligerent nature of the hatred between the two men, Frank thinks, might have scared Rosie off.

Frank has two brothers, one older and one much younger, and two sisters, in the same configuration. He is closest to his youngest sister, Jackie, and he has more or less kept in touch with her over the years. He has let her know about his marriage and about his daughter.

The discovery of the body gives way to a who-done-it of a kind. But the actual identity of the murderer is far less important than the portrait of the family that emerges in the process. Frank’s parents—vivid near-parodies of the classic Irish pair—have given births to tensions and rivalries in their five kids. The boys especially seem to be at one another’s throats for reasons that are not immediately apparent. Shay, the oldest, a handsome, wiry, and intense guy, resents having had to shoulder the burden of parental responsibility when Frank took off. Kevin, the youngest, seems overly impressed with his older brothers and is ready to be taken advantage of.

Put this combination together with a nagging mother and abusive father, and you have the classic makings of dysfunction. French plays this for all it is worth. The results are compelling, to be sure, but a reader might also feel that the whole procedure is too predictable and a little heavy handed.

Heavy handed too are the relentless Irishisms in the characters’ speech. The slang lingo is so persistent that it almost comes to seem a mockery of the characters who speak it. I am fairly certain that is not what the author intended.

If there are a few too many intense family confrontations and a bit too much slang, there is still a wonderfully engaging story to be told, and when French concentrates on moving that forward, she certainly succeeds.

I’ve enjoyed this novel, but I am also glad the experience is behind me. I will give French’s next novel a try, but I hope that she can break into something new.

Tana French

Get a copy of Tana French's Faithful Place at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

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