Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Tana French's "Faithful Place": Book Review

More a "fated" place, this Dublin street's where Frank Mackey investigates his girlfriend's fate after she vanished the night they were to elope twenty-two years ago. He works undercover, but this case, taken on also clandestinely, challenges him even more, for his identity's known to all.

This follows In the Woods and The Likeness in following members of the "Dublin Murder Squad". While Tana French's award-winning debut also explored the intersection of past and present in another policeman's life during an investigation, I found it, solid as it was, less involving ultimately than her daring follow-up. That took on a rather outlandish plot that by its sheer audacity compelled you to see if French could convince you of its verisimilitude. Both books, faintly overlapping, showed her to be a wonderful chronicler of changing, gentrifying Dublin and its environs. Her ear for dialogue's sharp, her characterization draws you in to what feel old-fashioned almost Victorian studies of people under pressure, and her wit entertained.

Frank appeared in the earlier books but oddly, no mention of the protagonists or plots of the previous two installments enters this one. While the ending may not be much of a surprise, French appears more confident in delineating the power of loss within outwardly predictable, inwardly constricted settings.

The pain of domesticity and the romance of flight energize the storytelling even if the plot may not be as unpredictable as the genre may achieve. French may be better at describing middle-class rather than working-class Dubliners. The setting for all its specificity does not come alive as vividly as in her two previous novels set in tonier sections further away from the city center where this plot unfolds. The dialogue's not as sassy, and the characters not as eccentric.

However, from the start of this novel, French finds her narrative voice. She channels it with poise and conviction. While I'd have wished for more of Dublin beyond this street, her wish to force the reader to stay where she tells you deepens her control over the setting of its title.

Characters in detail here remain few. Frank's family and a few neighbors comprise most of those he takes on in the hectic week or so of the events that force him back to his family's home in the Liberties, south of the River Liffey. French gives less local color and fewer predictable figures than you might expect for a Dublin chronicler. She prefers to emphasize the pull back to the familiar, and the desperate compulsion to break away from such bonds. This novel hones in on one family, one street, and one corpse. Its scope narrows and intensifies as the chronology's compressed.

I was surprised at how over four hundred pages she could sustain the action. Chapter seven's a superbly paced, dramatically arranged conversation between Frank and his siblings at the local pub. It reads as if a gripping one-act drama. Faithful Place succeeds as a modestly told novel that avoids cliche, stylized dialogue, or easy sentiment. While I missed some of the wry Irish humor than enlivened The Likeness, French does sneak in an unprintable joke using ZZ Top as metaphor.

What seems a story with few possible variations naturally unfolds into many. Without feeling padded, French's tale works on its merits of listening to how people talk and watching, as would a detective, how they act.

Frank looks at how his family looks after over two decades away, musing how the fading light lessens his siblings' wrinkles as they sit again on their front steps as when children, each on their usual perch. He recollects how we tend to see those we knew whom we met when young as if always such. And, Frank laments at the passing of those who never had a chance to grow grey.

Out of such moments, French creates a steady, thoughtful study of how family ties together those desperate to keep its parents and children intact against whatever the world, the neighbors, or the suitors of its offspring conspire to set against the comforts, and terrors, of life at home. (Posted in shorter form to Amazon US & Lunch.com 8-2-10; submitted as slightly altered here to PopMatters June 21, 2011)


Linda said...

Nice review. I just saw another review on this site on Faithful Place and thought I would look around before placing an order.

Having seen your review as well, the book looks like a nice read. Will order a copy tonight.

Helen Neely

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Helen, thanks-- if you liked the first two (which aren't necessary to have read), you'll love this one. What French may slightly suffer from in suspense she makes up for in depth of character. She's getting better with each novel.