by Tana French
Published by Viking
416 pages, 2010
Reviewed by Gretchen Echols
On a frigid December night 22 years ago, teenager Frank Mackey left his gritty Dublin neighborhood, intending to run away to London with his girl, Rosie Daly. They planned to get married, find good jobs and not look back again toward the poverty and unforgiving reality of their lives on Faithful Place.
But Rosie never showed up for their meeting.
She’d previously been forbidden by her father from associating with Frank. So the young man just assumed that Rosie had had second thoughts about hooking up with him, and had instead lit out for England on her own. Frank wasn’t about to be stopped by this unexpected turn of events. He was already bound and determined to leave Faithful Place, and even without Rosie at his side, he kept on going.
Now flash forward two decades. Frank Mackey is a cop, a member of the Dublin Murder Squad, working in the undercover unit. He has a 9-year-old daughter, Holly, who is the light of his life. And he is determined that she won’t ever be exposed to the sorts of horrors he once experienced with his own family, back in Faithful Place.
The trouble is, most roads lead in two directions -- and Frank is about to revisit the past he hoped to leave behind forever.
Faithful Place is Irish author Tana French’s third novel (following 2007’s In the Woods and 2008’s The Likeness), and certainly her best one yet. Narrated by Frank Mackey, it is a masterful tale of forbidden love, family loyalties, sibling rivalries and sins of the fathers extending their injurious reach into the next generation.
When we encounter the adult Frank, he has been summoned back to his childhood home by his sister Jackie. It seems the derelict house at the end of Faithful Place -- the very spot where he and Rosie had agreed to rendezvous before leaving Ireland -- is finally being demolished, and a suitcase has been found stuffed up a chimney. The Mackey family has that piece of luggage in their kitchen, and they’re pawing through its contents. It doesn’t take Frank long to recognize the pair of ferry tickets left inside -- he’d purchased them for his long-ago escape with Rosie. Obviously, his teenage girlfriend didn’t hie off to London as he had always surmised. As his police instincts kick in, he moves quickly to protect the derelict suitcase from further contamination.
Later, Frank explores the shabby old residence where that bag was discovered. He has a bad feeling about something his brother Kevin told him: that the stink of dying rats emanated from the home’s walls in the year following Frank’s departure from Faithful Place. Checking out the creepy basement, Frank sees some suspicious concrete slabs and on a hunch calls in the police tech squad. Sure enough, old bones are revealed by removing one of those slabs. Frank is sure they must be Rosie’s remains. As a result, the Murder Squad is called in. But once it becomes known that Frank was involved with Rosie, he’s warned off pursuing the case.
However, Frank figures he ought to do some sleuthing on his own. After all, Faithful Place was his home turf for the first 19 years of his life. He knows how it works. He’ll make a few friendly calls on some of Rosie’s old friends, see what he can find out. Everyone living on Faithful Place is well aware of what goes on in their neighbors’ houses, but none of those inner-city residents is going to grass out one of their own to the Murder Squad cops. They might talk to Frank Mackey, though.
There’s an interesting scene early on in French’s novel, which finds Frank in a pub, talking over some preliminary details of the case with his brothers, Shay and Kevin, and his sisters, Jackie and Carmel. As Frank explains,
One of the obstacles to finding Rosie’s killer, though, is that Frank’s father and Rosie’s father are mortal enemies. Author French is pitch-perfect in portraying their family dynamics and dysfunctions. As she explains, the elder Mr. Daly has worked steadily at Dublin’s giant Guinness Brewery for all these years, while Rosie’s mother has become a recluse with severe mental problems. In the meantime, Frank’s dad -- now bedridden -- has had sporadic employment and is an abusive alcoholic who rages against the Dalys for reasons that are unclear to his children. Frank’s mother rules her family with an iron hand and suffers the drunken furies of her husband. Her anger and frustration with her miserable lot come through quite clearly after a family member perishes under supposedly accidental circumstances, and she begins making up her own story about what really caused his death. Frank tries to set her straight:
As Frank Mackey continues pumping Rosie’s childhood associates and talks with his mother and siblings, a tangled story of what went on in their neighborhood 22 years ago emerges. He comes to understand the brutal truth in William Faulkner’s famous line from Requiem for a Nun (1951): “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And as he uncovers old loyalties he never knew existed, Frank learns as well that recent history hasn’t been what he thought it was, either. Evidently, his daughter, Holly, has been dropping in on his parents at Faithful Place for more than a year already, and his sister Jackie and his ex-wife have colluded behind Frank’s back to ensure that Holly has a relationship with her cousins and grandmother.
Tana French trained in the theater and she understands how to ratchet up the tension of a story. She is excellent at planting the reader in the middle of tense situations where protagonists have to make difficult choices. All of her books are complex psychological explorations of place, motive and personality. But Faithful Place stands out even in that distinguished crowd. It’s hard to imagine how she can top it -- but after seeing her performance thus far, it is very possible she will. | October 2010
Gretchen Echols is a Seattle writer, artist and bookstore employee with a longstanding fondness for crime and mystery fiction.