You can't go home again
Tana French puts a sense of place into her suspenseful thrillers
Readers who have already met some of the indelible characters in Irish author Tana French’s earlier thrillers, In the Woods and The Likeness, greeted the news of her third novel with excitement, perhaps hoping to see some familiar faces.
Although neither Rob Ryan nor Cassie Maddox—protagonists of the first two books—appears in Faithful Place, the story does revolve around a character introduced in the previous novel: Frank Mackey, a cop on Dublin’s Undercover Squad, who turned up as Cassie’s former boss in The Likeness.
“I have this feeling that mystery fiction, almost more than any other genre, is really rooted in the society where it is set.”
French didn’t always intend to write about Frank next, but while working on The Likeness, she found herself becoming interested in him. “He had a very odd moral sense,” she says during a phone call to her home in Dublin. “And I was kind of interested in how you would turn into that kind of person, and then what would happen if you really got pushed to the far edge of that question: Will you do anything to yourself and to the people you love best to get your man?”
Frank is certainly pushed to the edge of reason in Faithful Place when, against his better judgment, he returns to the family he left more than 20 years earlier. In December 1985, he was 19 years old, desperate to escape his miserable home life and madly in love with Rosie Daly. He and Rosie made plans to run away to Britain together, but on the night that they were supposed to meet at Number 16, Faithful Place—the abandoned building at the top of their street—Rosie never showed up. Frank left anyway, heartbroken but determined never to go home again. He eventually joined the Dublin police force and married smart, sharp Olivia, with whom he now has a daughter, Holly, and an uneasy post-divorce relationship.
But when Rosie’s suitcase turns up 22 years later, hidden behind a wall at Number 16, Frank has no choice but to wade back into the mess of his family and his old neighborhood if he wants to find out what happened to her. Complicating matters is the fact that there’s no love lost between the neighborhood—the Liberties, one of the oldest parts of Dublin—and the police. Frank’s family sees no reason why they should trust him, and the neighbors would rather keep their secrets than expose them to the light of an official investigation.
French isn’t from the Liberties, but her husband is, which helped her to feel that she could write about it with some degree of accuracy. “I don’t pretend that I understand it from outside,” she says. “I think you would probably have to be born and brought up there and come from four generations there to really get the hang of the Liberties. But I had good insight, and I had a real insider vetting it for me to make sure I didn’t do anything stupid.”
The Liberties is an area rich with its own culture and history, French explains. “The same families have lived there for hundreds of years. Now recently it has started changing—it got kind of yuppified over the last 20 years. But you still get families who show up in the 1911 census, who have been there for hundreds and hundreds of years. It was never a rich area—right up into my husband’s day, it was tenement flats with outside toilets, but with a very strong community ethic which it still has, and with the nosiness that comes with people being very jammed together.”
The close, almost suffocating atmosphere of the Liberties is mirrored in Frank’s family, who still exert the same pressure on him as on the day he left. “Families are fascinating, the way they interact, and the way your family can get to you with a speed and an efficiency that no one else in the world can quite do,” French says. “That’s what I was interested in: the huge intense power of family, and what would happen if you came back into the zone of that power after having resisted it for so long. Because I think even if you do leave your family for 20 years, like Frank does, it’s not that the pull of that magnet ever goes away. It’s just that you get far enough that it weakens. And when you come back within its reach, it’s going to snap you straight back in.”
Frank’s family is full of the memorable characters that French writes so well, from naïve and upwardly mobile Kevin to “dark and wiry and restless” Shay, who still lives upstairs from their parents and has never forgiven Frank for escaping his fair share of their alcoholic father’s abuse. Frank’s younger sister Jackie is the only one he’s kept in contact with over the years—but it turns out she’s been keeping a secret from him.
Trained as an actress at Trinity College, French has had years of experience on the stage, which helps her to create these fully fleshed-out characters and to inhabit so completely the mind of her narrator. “I write like an actor,” she says of her first-person narrative style. “If you write third person, you have to be able to see things from everybody’s viewpoint equally and simultaneously, whereas writing first person, it’s a lot more like playing one character in a play, in that you see all the action through the filter of this character’s perceptions and preconceptions and needs and biases.
“I think the fact that I start from character, not from plot, is also a very actor thing. I start out with a premise and the narrator, and I just hope to God there’s a plot in there somewhere that I’ll figure out as I go along.”
Clearly French has done well in that regard. Her first novel, In the Woods, debuted to tremendous acclaim in 2007, winning such major awards as the Edgar, Anthony and Macavity, and both that book and 2008’s The Likeness landed on the New York Times bestseller list.
Faithful Place, with its haunting plot and gorgeous prose, should be poised for similar success. Some of the book’s best passages are flashbacks to 1985, when Ireland was in the grip of a major recession. French vividly brings the period to life, contrasting it with Ireland’s later economic boom, which was nearing its end in December 2007. She very deliberately set the book in this time just before the crash, which has hit Ireland particularly hard. “We were riding so high on the wave of the economic boom that it shaped the entire national consciousness, and this crash is doing the same thing,” she says.
In one memorable scene, Frank must explain to nine-year-old Holly that his family is poor—an idea she finds shameful, having grown up thinking of poor people as stupid and lazy. One of French’s goals in
Faithful Place is to set the record straight: “I think that a big part of what happened in the economic boom was that it began to be seen as somehow irresponsible to be poor, no matter why; you were not contributing to the economy, you were a lesser person for not having a lot of money. And conversely, having a load of status symbols somehow implied that you were a more worthy person. And I thought that was something that Frank would probably feel very passionately about; in this very fraught relationship between his past and his present, that would be one of the things that he’d want to salvage from the past, the idea that your bank account isn’t necessarily a measure of your moral worth.”
Although French’s family was living abroad during much of the 1980s recession, she still remembers what it was like to spend those summers in Ireland. “Anybody who’s old enough to remember it is shaped by it, by the kind of thing that Frank describes. There’s a generation who [grew up] during the economic boom times [to whom] ‘broke’ meant you could only go on one holiday this year, whereas ‘broke,’ when we were teenagers, meant I can’t meet up for coffee because I don’t have the bus fare to get into town.”
French’s deftness with both character and setting make the world of Faithful Place pulse with life. It’s no accident that her novels all take place in Dublin, where—despite an itinerant childhood—she has lived since she was 17. “Dublin is the only place I really know, the only place I can call home, where I know the little things, like what connotations a certain accent has, and what’s a shortcut from A to B. I have this feeling that mystery fiction, almost more than any other genre, is really rooted in the society where it’s set, because crimes are shaped by the society they come out of. You have to have a strong sense of the underlying tensions within a society in order to set the kind of stuff I’m interested in writing there.”
As for her characters, readers of Faithful Place will enjoy guessing which one will become the protagonist of French’s fourth book, which she is writing now. “The reason I skip from narrator to narrator is usually because it’s hard to come up with more than one story that’s that crucial to any one person’s life. There aren’t that many turning points in any given person’s life, and I kind of don’t want to write about anything that’s less than crucial.”
Though she has yet to repeat a narrator, she says she would like to write about Frank and his family again: “I hope there’s a book there someday! It’s funny, I still haven’t reached the point where I can take this for granted. A part of me is still going, oh God, I hope I don’t just drop everything and smash it.” With Faithful Place, which may be French’s best novel yet, she has nothing to fear.