Tana French has been on my "author to read" pile for a very long time. Not only had her debut book, "In the Woods," been talked about by everyone I knew, she was being ballyhooed as a new and refreshing voice (a description that has also been used to death by those lauding Steig Larsson's "The Girl..." books and look how well that turned out; that's six hours I'll never see again). Still, I'm always on the lookout for fresh voices, but somehow I never got around to reading her. Then a friend lent me her latest book, "Faithful Place." Another fellow mick, he recommended it highly, saying that the depictions of Dubliners were so dead on that while reading it he felt that Ms. French had cribbed her notes from one of his family gatherings.
I finished this last night, and I have mixed feelings about this book. The writing is, hands down, gripping, nuanced, mature, biting, funny, sly, and so dead-on vernacular (but not Mark Twainish about it) that it was like lower working-class Dublin was sharing my seat with me. In short, I would donate a kidney to be able to write like that.
The book itself didn't work so well. The first half is pretty much as good as it gets, and then the book slowly starts to disintegrate, with the mystery and justice being tidied up in a clumsy, entirely unconvincing fashion. Not that I didn't know who'd done it a quarter of the way in, mind you, but I've stopped counting that as a deal breaker. No, it was that the story and mystery didn't work together particularly well. We have this story of the prodigal son returning to face demons he hasn't faced in years, and I didn't feel by the end of the book that the demons quite mattered anymore. It wasn't that the protagonist came to terms with them, it was that they ceased to become an issue, and it felt that Ms. French all of a sudden realized that they should become an issue, and then we have a series of clumsy attempts to wrap things.
The unmasking of the murderer I found completely implausible. Using the protagonist's child as part of the reveal was strained to the point of ridiculous. As IF! I found it totally ludicrous that a note that implicated the murderer was in a desk drawer for twenty years. Plus, don't you think that if someone were being murdered roughly twenty yards away from where their boyfriend was standing that she might give out a holler or two, nosy neighbors be damned? Again, this I found totally implausible from an author who is smartsmartsmart.
Perhaps the biggest problem I have with this story is the relationship between the protagonist and his daughter. Yes, I know this is a book about families, but in order for the kid to be a legitimate part of the story, Ms. French has to up this kid's maturity quotient by a factor of forty. It didn't work for me, partly because Ms. French kept the kid bouncing back and forth between nine going on twenty, and nine going on seven. You can't have it both ways. She needed the kid to be young because loss of innocence was an important issue for the protagonist, but then you cannot have her act out of her age just because you've constructed a plot that needs her to have the perspicuity of a seventeen year old. Writing convincing kids is one of the hardest things to do. I know two authors who've done it pretty well to perfection and they are the benchmark for me: Harper Lee's Scout Finch and Stephen King's Danny Torrance. This author falls far short.
So while I adored the writing and by that I mean the agility and grace of the language--and I cannot stress this enough--I found that the murder mystery didn't gel with the larger story. Usually in a murder mystery, it's the other way around. This mystery took a distant back seat to the story of this massively dysfunctional family, and in the end, Ms. French had to bash it all together to make it fit. It didn't quite work, in my opinion. However, I am so wowed by her writing that I will eagerly seek out her other books.