Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Tana French's "The Likeness": Book Review

This Dublin-based sequel to "In the Woods" fulfills French's earlier promise. She hones her protagonist, sharpens her style, and narrows her perspective. The result, in the final third, kept me up well past bedtime. For me, a sure sign of success.

I liked it better than ITW. That novel, reviewed recently by me here and on Amazon US, introduced Detective Cassie Maddox's former partner, Rob Ryan, as he told of their investigation. Characters and dialogue often proved intriguing, but the plot seemed too ambitious and its details too many. The sequel turns to Cassie's next major case, and turns on a premise even more daring than Rob's own predicament in ITW. Cassie must take on "the likeness" of Lexie Madison, who she resembles strongly, so as to find her killer.

Both novels turn most eloquent when considering death.
"But if you've seen a dead body, you know how they change the air; that huge silence, the absence strong as a black hole, time stopped and molecules frozen around the still thing that's learned the final secret, the one he can never tell. Most dead people are the only thing in the room. Murder victims are different; they don't come alone. The silence rises up to a deafening shout and the air is streaked and hand-printed, the body smokes with the brand of that other person grabbing you just as hard: the killer." (17)

A bit later, Cassie describes her skill, and also alludes to her previous case that comprises ITW.
"I had one, at least, of the things that make a great detective: the instinct for truth, the inner magnet whose pull tells you beyond any doubt what's dross, what's alloy and what's the pure, uncut metal. I dug out the nuggets without caring when they cut my fingers and brought them in my cupped hands to lay on graves, until I found out-- Operation Vestal again-- how slippery they were, how easily they crumbled, how deep they sliced and, in the end, how very little they were worth." (78-79)

French's prose carries a forceful, yet often poetic, delivery. Read these passages aloud and you can recognize a personality behind Cassie's printed voice. Both Rob and Cassie emerge as full-fledged characters, and where "The Likeness" arguably betters ITW is French's concentration on a more restricted, Big House-Gothic type of setting that allows fewer figures to prowl about under her scrutiny as she seeks to solve Lexie's mystery.

A "local yokel," interrogated, speaks convincingly as a rural Irish young man about what the Big House in question, Whitethorn, represents to villagers left out of the boom; an airheaded yuppie speculator, by contrast, sounds like a stoned sophomore off some MTV "reality show" about a college spring break. The continued homogenization of Ireland under the globalized media and inrushing capital gain their own eloquent critique from a resident of the Whitethorn that sets in motion the final third of the book that kept me reading past last midnight. French, as with ITW, places her detectives into an exurban Dublin that dispiritingly shows the loss of place, the destruction of heritage, and the long memories of what for the Irish it means to be dispossessed of both tradition and family, roots and comfort.

While not without welcome bits of humor especially early on, it's a serious entry into a vanishing past under a SUV, executive-driven, and cluelessly profiteering present. Neither book revels in stereotype; religion and pubs, gregarious barflies and menacing priests are as absent as any sustained evocation of Dublin's charm or Wicklow's peace. The future of French's Ireland appears as desolate and cheapened as much of the rest of the "advanced" world. In it, as Rob learned, so does Cassie how desperately those who resist such "progress" may be twisted in their desire for escape.

(Posted to Amazon US 3/16/09.)

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