WTF, OMG, like, WOW!
This compelling, satisfying, dark, twisty, evocative thriller by French, set in an elite girls’ boarding school outside Dublin, did though, leave me thinking for once that perhaps the operatic over the top incoherence of stylised ‘youth-speak’ was the only possible response, after all. Not because Tana French is in any way incoherent or over the top, though she certainly deals with huge issues which are the stuff of opera and classical drama – the individual and the domestic opening out into much wider, mythic, universal themes. The gobsmacked reaction is really one of awestruck admiration, is all.
Continuing with her ‘Irish Chorus’ of leading characters from the Dublin Murder Squad (she highlights and focuses on a different detective each time) this time her investigating duo are both, in different ways, outsiders. Antoinette Conway is outside because she is a woman, and, moreover, a fierce one who lashes back at evidence of misogyny, patronisation and exploitation. This has made her unpopular with her male colleagues. Stephen Moran wants to be liked, sure, and has charm, but is not prepared to be one of the laddish lads. There is a sense that perhaps he is a little better than the rest, and knows himself to be so. This means he too is a slightly dubious, slightly marked card, by virtue of this aloofness behind the affable. The dynamic between the two, and the building of a professional working relationship, is fascinating – both gender and class are subtexts.
A year earlier, a dead body had been discovered in the grounds of St. Kilda’s girls’ school. It belonged to a popular and lusted after catch of a boy from the neighbouring elite boys’ boarding school. Conway, with another professional partner had attempted to solve the murder, and failed to do so, and the failure left a stain on her. So when some compelling evidence comes Moran’s way, re-opening the investigation offers a way-out, the prospects of advancement, but also the danger of ultimate professional failure, for both. Stakes are high
The fervid, hothouse, intense setting of adolescent girlhood (plus the allure of the neighbouring testosterone) is magnificently done. The reader, like the detectives, is drawn into a world which is both terrifying and sparkling with energy, dreams, passions and possibilities.
Any comparisons to Donna Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History, which French clearly nods at in her own title, are neither audacious nor undeserved. Once again, we have an elite (albeit a crucial few years younger) and issues of class and privilege, cliquery which is both full of possibility and full of poison.
What I particularly liked about French’s superb mastery of relationships, characterisation and dialogue amongst the charged teens is that she does not fall into relentless cliché – though there are the ubiquitous rhythms and language of the group, portrayed with accuracy – she does not cut each individual girl and boy from an identikit cloth – the reader can hear individual rhythms.
There is a substrate to French’s writing which seems to have a particular sensitivity to ‘atmosphere and preternatural energetics’ I suspect she is someone who feels the indefinable, that which, for want of a better term, gets tarred dismissively as ‘supernatural’. So this is certainly a strong element running through this book. But, for those who absolutely dismiss such things, there is certainly much evidence throughout history of the effects of a kind of group hysteria, group hyper-arousal to ‘mysterious comings and goings’ and activities involving poltergeists which cluster around adolescence. So, take a group of highly charged young girls within a cloistered setting, and the explosion of a dark, brilliant energy out of which mysterious things happen does not, in any way, feel like a novelist copping out by invoking the supernatural. It just adds to the shiver and the tension.
Structurally, a beautifully told tale : alternate chapters, the detectives, taking place over a little more than a day, the central groups of two rival groups of girls, moving slowly forward over eight months and two weeks towards the day the boy was murdered.
And as for the writing itself, gorgeous, authentic, and every now and again arising into something even finer, some kind of summing up :
Conway..spun the MG onto the main road and hit the pedal. Someone smacked his horn, she smacked hers back and gave him the finger, and the city fireworked alive all around us: flashing with neon signs and flaring with red and gold lights, buzzing with motorbikes and pumping with stereos, streaming warm wind through the open windows. The road unrolled in front of us, it sent its deep pulse up into the hearts of our bones, it flowed on long and strong enough to last us for ever.
So………..I have recovered loquaciousness, though I’m not so sure about coherence….read it, just read it!! A brilliant, highly recommended outing.
And I am indebted to Cleopatralovesbooks for her superb review of The Secret Place which sent me hot-footing to the library for a copy. It IS one which I know I’ll want to read again, so I know a Kindle purchase is on the cards!