Continuation of an overview of the compelling, suspenseful style of award-winning, bestselling author Tana French and her psychological murder mystery/crime thrillers: IN THE WOODS, THE LIKENESS, FAITHFUL PLACE, and BROKEN HARBOR. Read Part 1 here.
Pamela Bond Contractor (Guest Blogging for Marilyn Thiele)
Note: As mentioned last week, to date Tana French has written four books, all published in the US by Viking Penguin. I had hoped to provide a brief review of all four books in this single blog post, but it proved not to be possible to adequately summarize all four within this space and do them justice. So, using last week’s discussion of the author’s style and worldview as a point of reference, I will take a somewhat deeper peek into her award-winning debut novel, In the Woods (2007), and reserve the other three reviews for future posts.
Risking oversimplifying the various themes French explores, here (and in later reviews of the other books) I will focus on a single motif that underlies a major aspect of her award-winning debut novel, one that drives the protagonist to the story’s ragged end, still searching for redemption: memory and its relation to truth.
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This marvelous first book, one of the selections of our reading group at Marilyn’s Flemington, NJ bookstore, explores the treachery of memory. The protagonist-narrator, Rob Ryan, along with his joined-at-the-hip partner and friend, Cassie Maddox, are Dublin Murder Squad detectives in pursuit of the killer of a young girl whose body was found near an archeological dig. Both the dig and, especially, the woods become a metaphor for the protagonist’s arc in the novel: Rob has a very strange and troubling past that he seems to have completely repressed, but that beckons to him with skeletal claws from deep within his subconscious mind (page numbers refer to the hardcover edition):
The wood is all flicker and murmur and illusion. Its silence is a pointillist conspiracy of a million tiny noises—rustles, flurries, nameless truncated shrieks; its emptiness teems with secret life, scurrying just beyond the corner of your eye. . . . [p. 2]
It is Rob’s fractured voice, heard in last week’s post (What I am telling you . . . is this—two things: I crave truth. And I lie. [p. 4]), that takes us on a journey exploring memory and its connection to truth. About 20 years before the current action of the novel, Rob was found catatonically hugging a tree after the disappearance and presumed killing of a small group of children in the woods near their home. Because he remembers nothing, he reads to us from his own case file that when he was found he was wearing white cotton socks that were soaked with blood from the outside in, white lace-up running shoes that were more heavily blood-soaked from the inside out, and a white cotton T-shirt with four parallel tears running diagonally across the back. He does not remember what happened to him or to his three friends, with whom he was planning to run away from the adult world and “into legend.” And he doesn’t want to.
As the lone survivor of an apparently horrific crime, Rob (whose childhood name was Adam) has locked the black box of his childhood memory—and thrown away the key?—as he and Cassie set out on Operation Vestal, hiding his identity from even her. Yet despite the power of Rob’s conscious mind to defend itself against the ravages of the deep past, his subconscious mind has a potent urge to regurgitate what he has long repressed. His cause—to protect himself from the truth, whatever the cost—requires him to evade honesty in the present as he compromises the current investigation and sacrifices his relationships. The damage to his psyche is so severe that he cannot relate to anyone on anything like a vulnerable human level—relationships require, at minimum, emotional honesty. The child still alive within the man scorns not only human companionship, but often human decency. He both loathes and longs for the irretrievable aspects of himself, becoming surprisingly unsympathetic. As he grapples with his need to shelter his tender, authentic self, he expresses the hateful, uncompromising coldness of his ego-self:
“. . . I’ve been trying to reach you all evening,” Cassie said.
“I really can’t talk now. . . .”
“Rob . . . this is important—”
“I’m sorry . . . I’ll be in work at some point tomorrow, or you can leave me a note.” I heard the quick, painful catch of breath, but I put the phone down anyway. [p. 355]
Even a sociopath, whom French draws expertly in this book, seems to offer greater human connection for Rob than anyone he cares for or respects—especially his beloved Cassie. And even she becomes acquainted with duplicity, both in her professional life and in her deeply personal world. But sometimes, from the morally bereft, clear and calm mind of a criminal who is permanently dislodged from honesty, our own struggles with the truth are mirrored back to us:
“. . . if hearing the truth puts you in an uncomfortable position, that’s really your own fault, isn’t it? You shouldn’t have got yourself into this situation. I don’t think I should be expected to make allowances for your dishonesty." [p. 398]
By the end of the tale, Rob appears to be a lost soul damned to keep running within his own mind, endlessly evading the awful memories buried deep within it that want to chase him to the death. We both ache for and hate him for his inability to come to terms with the reality of who he is—and was.
But cleverly, French employs the sociopath as a neat device for pulling the other characters—and us—into his world, perhaps evoking empathy:
I am intensely aware . . . that this story does not show me in a particularly flattering light. . . . But before you decide to despise me too thoroughly, consider this: [the sociopath] fooled you, too. . . . I told you everything I saw, as I saw it at the time. And if that was in itself deceptive, remember, I told you that, too: I warned you, right from the beginning, that I lie. [p. 409]
All of the characters, Rob especially, evoked strong feelings in our book group and left us wanting more from the troika of Rob, Cassie, and their other partner, Sam. Beyond even that, though, like almost all other readers (see the various forums on the Internet), most of us had a powerful reaction to how it ended. Some felt frustrated; others, perhaps fewer, were intrigued. Both groups, take heart: in Tana French’s interview with Goodreads, she said she may be bringing back some of her characters, including Rob and Cassie.[*]
This is a story of loss of one kind or another, which I will leave readers to explore for themselves. But perhaps I can say that while we might not get to puncture the veil that surrounds every straggling mystery, we retain a hope that somehow, someday we will get not only resolution, but redemption.
Pamela Bond Contractor is the owner and principal at Ellipsis Enterprises, an editorial consulting agency, and a member of Marilyn’s “Twice Told Tales/Moonstone Mystery” reading groups.
[*] French’s interview with Goodreads also discusses her other books and aspects of her writing.