Monday, March 16, 2009

Tana French's "In the Woods": Book Review

Sprawling, dense, and intricate, this début by an Irish author marks an ambitious entry. Award-winning and popular, "In the Woods" touches upon the ancient Celtic heritage threatened by a motorway's completion. Sadly, this mirrors a real threat to the Tara valley that's met with visceral opposition-- as with Knocknaree's fictional counterpart.

Dublin detective Rob Ryan investigates the murder of a child of one of the motorway's foes. That's all I will reveal about the case itself. Readers seem to be all over the map about their pleasure or anger with the resolution. Whodunits aren't my usual fare, so I'll remain neutral.

His links to an earlier pair of child murders at that very same site in the woods, from which he alone of the trio escaped as a youngster, make this tale perhaps-- like its rough sequel "The Likeness" (see my review on Amazon US or on this blog as the next entry)-- rather implausible. I think she botched one flashback scene halfway on by Rob, but I'll stay open to its inclusion. Rob's desperate to solve the case on his own home turf, and he has his own form of going undercover to do so.

For both books, they take a premise so unlikely you must dive in to convince yourself it can be pulled off. Still, French delights in a clever conceit. Like Ryan's irascible supervisor O'Kelly, I was morbidly skeptical but curious to see how the young Garda and his eager partner Cassie would weather the storms they entered and stirred up even more.

However, it's with characterization that French best shows her talent. Her narrative voice remains steady throughout as she evokes Rob's perspective. It may be too much information, but it does create a scenario that's recognizably harried and half-patched up. This storyteller's control of getting into somebody's mind to uncover hidden truth similarly fascinates Rob, his partner, and others they'll meet.

French has a smart way with phrasing. A "guileless teacher-nightmare" face on an archeology student captures her neatly. The jittery caffeinated coffee culture of today's Irish capital's contrasted well with the older tea and scones pace of old Mrs Fitzgerald. A minor shortcoming remains that too few people among the many we hear sound like distinctively Irish folks. The linguistic twists of that elderly lady's speech seem rare compared to the duller demotic of Ryan's yuppified and homogenized generation. Cassie and her mates do get off some great one-liners, but they sound like any Anglo-American mid-atlantic speaker. This may be intentional on French's part, but it does dampen down what might have been more "local flavor," and I don't mean blarney-laden begorrahs. However, as a register of a blander and commodified suburban Dublin today, this book appeared accurate, if dispiriting.

The panoramic mapping of mundane Irish suburbia does take a long time to unfold. It's opposite in style and location from Ken Bruen's Galway noir with ex-Garda Jack Taylor. Compared to Benjamin Black, John Banville's nom de plume, French's attention given savagery underneath civility in Dublin emerges more graphically, and not only at the morgue. (I've reviewed "The Silver Swan" & "Christine Falls;" also all of Bruen's harrowingly sharp, stripped-lean series.)

French's municipal and forensic depth may please readers. I never did not enjoy it and looked forward to staying up with it at night, but I perhaps a quarter to third of detail might have been edited out. There's so many conversations and characters that may ultimately enrich the setting, but like a director's cut for a feature film, perhaps paring down the presentation might have resulted in a snappier tone. The extras and establishing shots take too much time.

Still, the last scene with its evocative and ambiguous symbol does linger long for me. It may be too subtle for those not informed about the context from which it's resurrected. Yet, for me, a clever choice.

What's intriguing about the novel's broader impact- even if blurred by so much in the way of subplots and banter-- is how it reminds us about the horror of sudden, inexplicable death. French in both of her novels to date rises to the grim occasion when she confronts a corpse. She's learned not to flinch, but, like her detectives on the Murder Squad, knows how to balance compassion with detachment. The amount of research and procedure involved here I found impressive. Again, it may overwhelm the story as a whole, but it does immerse you all the same.

The novel sums up the poignant impact of loss. It follows shock convincingly. There's vivid writing amidst deliberately if wearying distraction. Ryan reflects:
"To my mind the defining characteristic of our era is spin, everything tailored to vanishing point by market research, brands and bands manufactured to precise specifications; we are so used to things transmuting into whatever we would like them to be that it comes as a profound outrage to encounter death, stubbornly unspinnable, only and immutably itself." (41)

(Posted to Amazon US 4/9/08. P.S. For more about the Tara-Skryne Valley's struggle against the M3

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