No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, February 08, 2013

2013/01: Broken Harbour -- Tana French

... the ghosts I believe in weren't trapped in the [...] bloodstains. They thronged the whole estate, whirling like great moths in and out of the empty doorways and over the expanses of cracked earth, battering against the sparse lighted windows, mouths stretched wide in silent howls: all the people who should have lived here. The young men who had dreamed of carrying their wives over these thresholds, the babies who should have been brought home from the hospital to soft nurseries in these rooms, the teenagers who should have had their first kisses leaning against lampposts that would never be lit. [location 3722]

Broken Harbour is a half-finished estate, far enough out of Dublin to be disconnected from the city. Those who chose to move in before development stalled feel isolated, abandoned, hopeless. Perhaps that's what drove Pat Spain to murder-suicide: he and his children are dead, his wife is in intensive care, and the case looks clearcut. Blame the recession.

But 'Scorcher' Kennedy (who's appeared in the background of Tana French's other novels) is not convinced. He and his partner, Richie -- a rookie who might have potential if he can learn to set aside his assumptions -- are puzzled by the state of the Spains' trophy home: there are holes in the walls, surveillance cameras in the attic, and evidence that someone's been hiding out in an unfinished building, staring straight into the kitchen where the Spains met their fate.

Kennedy's own past is nagging at him, too. Back in the Seventies, the site of Broken Harbour was a caravan park. Scorcher's memories of one particular summer are still vivid, despite his attempts to force them back into the past. His sister Dina's mental health issues have risen up again now that Broken Harbour's on the news. Something bad happened there before: something bad has happened again.

As in French's previous novels, the past is inescapable. And everyone is guilty of something, whether it's objectively wrong or not. (Is this Catholic guilt? Does confession absolve if the confession is a lie? If you'll never know the truth about what you did?)

I didn't like Scorcher Kennedy much at first, but as his iron self-control started to crumble I found myself increasingly fascinated by the contrast between his hard-nosed detective persona and the softer parts he no longer reveals or acknowledges. The gradual destruction of his relationship with Richie is painful to read, and ramps up as inexorably and horrifically as the murder investigation. French has a knack for characterisation and a lyrical style that one wouldn't expect to suit Kennedy: it does. "In these rooms, the world’s vast hissing tangle of shadows burns away, all its treacherous greys are honed to the stark purity of a bare blade, two-edged: cause and effect, good and evil. To me, these rooms are beautiful. I go into them the way a boxer goes into the ring: intent, invincible, home." [location 9221]

Like French's other novels, there's a hint -- but only a hint -- of the supernatural, of something ancient and inexplicable, affecting those who can't perceive it but know there's something wrong. This presence isn't as prominent as the weirdnesses of In the Woods, but it's there if you look -- and can be discounted if you prefer your murder mysteries rooted firmly in the real. (But Emma saw it!)

And, like French's other novels, Broken Harbour drew me in, surprised and affected and moved and awed. I can't think of another crime writer who so consistently impresses me.

I had been sure I was mended, all the breaks healed, all the blood washed away. I knew I had earned my way to safety. I had believed, beyond any doubt, that that meant I was safe. [location 8854]

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