Fiction – Kindle edition; Hodder & Stoughton; 448 pages; 2010.
I have Irish writer Tana French to thank for getting me out of my recent fictional reading slump. I read this novel, her third, in just a couple of days and found it enormously entertaining if slightly over-written — and over-wrought — in places.
Faithful Place is a crime thriller, but it doesn’t feature any of the main characters from her previous two novels — the police procedural In the Woods and its sequel The Likeness. It’s a completely stand-alone work of fiction, but the story does tread similar territory in that it focuses on a murder investigation in modern day Dublin.
The investigation gets under way when the suitcase of a woman once believed to have left Dublin for England 20 years ago mysteriously turns up in an abandoned home. The contents, which include her birth certificate, have not been disturbed. Does this mean she never left the city? And if she didn’t leave, what happened to her?
Enter undercover cop Frank Mackey, who has an exceptional interest in the case: the suitcase belonged to his girlfriend Rosie Daly. Twenty years earlier the pair had been planning to run away together, but Rosie never turned up to their agreed rendezvous point, 16 Faithful Place, and Frank assumed he’d been unceremoniously dumped. It is something he has never quite come to terms with.
Frank, who is a bit of a maverick, is not officially on the police case, but this doesn’t stop him from carrying out his own inquiries on the sly. What emerges is a portrait of a complicated man, who has unceremoniously ditched his working-class roots to pursue a career as a garda. But despite going up in the world — he marries a nice middle-class girl, whom he later divorces, and has a beautiful daughter — Frank can never quite let go of his troubled past.
His off-the-record investigation means re-establishing contact with people living in Faithful Place, the street he grew up on and thought he’d left behind. This includes his over-bearing mother, his alcoholic father and his four siblings. Then there are Rosie’s childhood friends — and Rosie’s judgemental parents.
I’ll admit there are elements of this story which are a bit soap-opera-ish, and Frank’s voice doesn’t feel particularly authentic as a male (he’s far too sappy about Rosie, for a start), but this doesn’t take away from the sheer enjoyment of ploughing through this book to find out what happens next. There are lots of unexpected plot surprises, and the story of Frank and Rosie’s teenage past, told in a series of seamless flashbacks, is nicely done.
What I like about French’s writing style is her ability to nail life in modern Ireland so perfectly you really feel as though you’re sitting in a Dublin pub having conversations with old friends. She gets the politics, the corruption, the consumerist lifestyles and the class divides down pat, but does so without making it seem contrived.
And her ability to write dialogue is also pitch-perfect. There are scenes in this book between squabbling older siblings which have a genuine ring of authenticity about them, perhaps a skill she has developed from her life in the theatre (she trained as an actor at Trinity College). Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if Faithful Place wasn’t adapted for the screen at some point, because it would make a good film, complete with the over-the-top, sort of unexpected and not wholly believable, ending.
And while the book could do with a good edit (it’s at least 100 pages too long), it has an intelligence rarely seen in big commercially successful crime novels. French knows what makes people tick, she knows the inner-most secrets of big rambling Irish families, and she knows how the places we grow up in shape our lives and personalities.
In a nutshell, Faithful Place is perfect fare for those who appreciate good solid storytelling with a twist at the end. For me, this is the kind of comfort read that gets me out of the bookish doldrums with a jolt.