... 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. (p. 20)
Lexie Madison never really existed. Now she's dead.
Detective Cassie Maddox, still fresh from her brush with a psychopath and the loss of her best friend (see Into the Woods) is the only person who can unravel Lexie's murder, because she (and her boss Frank Mackey) created Lexie Madison, years ago, as Cassie's undercover persona. The dead girl is the spitting image of Cassie, who's presented with an undercover operative's dream: be the victim of the crime, slide into that vacated life and discover who might have wanted Lexie Madison dead.
Lexie lived with four fellow PhD students in Whitethorn House, the huge old mansion inherited by Daniel, the leader of the group. They're an odd bunch: outsiders, possibly trying to recreate the family experience that all, in one way or another, have missed out on. Theirs is a life without boundaries, strangely old-fashioned in some ways (no computers in the house; no TV; evenings spent sewing, playing the piano, telling stories). Cassie thinks of them at first as being 'like spies from another planet who had got their research wrong and wound up reading Edith Wharton and watching reruns of Little House on the Prairie' (p.97). She's quickly drawn into the strange self-contained world of the group, and though she's wired for sound and reports nightly to Frank Mackey, her loyalties -- and other aspects of her selfhood -- shift dramatically over the course of the story.
There are many mysteries for Cassie to resolve: who was the young woman who assumed Cassie's cast-off identity? Who stabbed her? Why? What is Daniel's agenda? Why can't she pick up any sexual 'vibes' between the four housemates? And can she keep up the pretence of being someone she isn't, someone with likes and dislikes and indifferences?
And we have a very clear sense of Lexie herself, although she's dead, although she never really existed. Cassie feels sometimes that she's being watched. She believes, on a fundamental level that has nothing to do with objective truth, that Lexie wants her fate to be told.
I found The Likeness utterly compelling -- stayed up past 2am reading, something I rarely do any more -- and the interplay between the four (or five) friends both credible and claustrophobic. There are strong similarities (or perhaps parallels) with Donna Tarrt's The Secret History: the small, elite group in self-imposed isolation from the real world, the hints of something preternatural (perhaps it's only the narrator's suggestibility?) in the background, the crime that must be covered up. But French's novel is very much a novel about Ireland: about the economy and the housing market, about pregnancy and abortion, about feuds that last for generations, about everyday superstition.
There's a strong theme of sacrifice throughout the book. Daniel quotes a Spanish proverb: "Take what you want and pay the price, says God". He and Cassie both learn the hard way that the price of what you want is not always something you can afford.
I did have a few minor problems with the plot, not least when Cassie was unable to unravel Lexie's 'secret code' of 'LHR, CDG, AMS'. And, especially towards the end, a couple of the characters (previously complex and three-dimensional) folded down, in crisis, into stereotypes: the prissy homosexual, the unrequited lover. But: crisis. It's forgiveable.
Many reviewers had a problem with the end of In the Woods: The Likeness redresses the balance, and then some. The novel could have ended fifty pages sooner and the crime(s) would have been resolved -- "the happiest ending we were ever going to get" (p.534) -- but Cassie herself has unfinished business, loose ends, and those too are brought into the light.
The final paragraph of The Likeness is a moving and powerful passage, the perfect conclusion for a novel of such stark beauty and unashamedly poetic prose. It made me cry.