Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Review. Tana French and Sean Moncrieff

February Review.
Tana French and Sean Moncrieff.

Published in Books Ireland. February, 2013.

Imagine if you’d bought a house on a ghost estate? A move that you felt was essential, to get on the property ladder. Suppose you then lost your job, and felt stuck there, penniless, and isolated from your friends and family?

Prize winning author Tana French has used that scenario in her fourth psychological thriller. She’s taken The Spains, a happy young family living in a creepy, half built, deserted estate in a onetime coastal resort called Broken Harbour. They struggle to remain upbeat, in spite of their scumbag neighbours, whilst around them, feral teenagers roam.

When Murder Detective Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy is called in, he finds the Spain children dead; smothered in their beds. Their father, Patrick Spain, has met a rather more bloody end. His wife Jenny, with similar stab wounds, is still alive, and may survive to tell her story.

Kennedy expects a simple, open and shut case, but there are some puzzling aspects. Jenny’s sister says the couple were idyllically happy, though the recession has hit them hard. But what about the intruder who may, or may not have been in Jenny’s imagination?

Why do the Spains have so many baby monitors dotted around, and what’s the story with all the holes in their walls? When the detectives find a stalker; and one who admits the crime, it seems their job is done. But further investigation muddies the waters. There are dozens of plot twists before we, finally, learn the truth.

This thriller isn’t as frightening as French’s earlier books; yet I couldn’t stop reading it. That’s because a book by Tana French is always about more than crime. She’s created as much of a story around her narrator, Mick Kennedy; who appeared as a minor character in her last novel Faithful Place, as she has in the murder itself.

Proud of his record ‘solve’ rate, Kennedy loves control. And murders, he tells his young rookie Richie, always follow certain rules. Rule number seven, for example, is that ‘everyone always lies. Killers, witnesses, bystanders, victims. Everyone.’

Kennedy has happy memories of Broken Harbour; it was a place where his mother was always happy. He hides from the reader, and himself, that it was also the place where the most traumatic incident in his life occurred.

It’s the unfolding of his past; and the reasons for his failed marriage, and lack of ease in any relationship that makes this 500 pager so compulsive. We meet his mad sister early on. But it’s only later that we realise why she worries so much about her big brother.

Jenny Spain tries to bury her troubles, too. Like Kennedy, she keeps harking back to a summer when everything was rosy. Her biggest fear is that others will discover the truth of the present. In this, she resembles the narrator.

This novel shows French at her best. It’s a serious look at the heartrending consequences of the boom, and of what the recession can do to a family. It also examines what can happen to the psyche of someone who refuses to confront the bad in their lives. It’s a tour de force.

The characters in Sean Moncrieff’s new novel hark back to their teenage years too. And that’s not the only parallel between Moncrieff’s book and French’s. Both deal with the wreckage wrought by the recession; both involve a suspected murder; and in both it’s the ‘why’, rather than the ‘who’ that grabs the reader’s attention.

Set during the election campaign, Moncrieff focuses on the hopelessness, distrust, and lack of belief in anyone and anything that pervades recession Ireland. The novel opens with the death of a girl. Manda Ferguson falls out of a Dublin apartment window to her death. Wearing a bridesmaid dress, she lands in a skip, and an election poster falls on top of her.

We learn of the events, and of the girl through various characters. There’s Baz, a reforming druggie, who possibly, pushed the girl to her death. There’s Maurice, the paranoid taxi driver who took a panicked Baz home that day. There’s Rachel, the election candidate whose poster’s fall indicates her own fall from grace, and there’s Michael, the priest who administered the last rites, and is now examining his conscience, and his growing disbelief.

The book juxtaposes all their stories, filling in their backgrounds, so that by the end of the book we have understanding, and empathy for them all. But central to the book, is a tabloid journalist who has lost her way.

Carol Murphy knew Manda Ferguson. On the strength of this, she’s given the story; but she doesn’t divulge that Manda was her cousin; and one she was once close to; enjoying her happiest times ever. That’s partly because she’s forgotten. She hasn’t seen Manda in years.

Carol is a mess. Drink, grief at her mother’s death, and the breakup with a charming, but volatile boyfriend, has caused demons to crowd in. And the necessary conversations with her Aunt, her cousin Conor, and with her absent father, have left her confused. So, whilst her investigation helps her confidence, along with her flagging career, it also causes the gaps in her memory to open. Can she turn her life around and be happy?

Meanwhile Rachel, dropped by her party, tries to go it alone. And it seems, just possible, that she might succeed, until her rich husband, caught off guard, leaves her open to ridicule. As for Baz, he reconciles with his mother, talking through the mess and misunderstandings of the past.

By this time, Manda Ferguson has become famous. There are ‘sighting’ of her throughout Ireland, as an angel of the street lamps. In their hysteria, people gather and turn to prayer. This freaks the priest Michael, and he takes drastic action, nearly killing himself in the process. Yet, it’s through him, that most of the characters enjoy a reconciliation.

I admire Moncrieff, enormously, as a broadcaster. His ease at interviewing makes his show utterly engaging. And this empathy for people is apparent in his writing. He makes the reader care what happens to everyone. And he shows amazing understanding for the things that go on in a woman’s head.

Rachel suffered four miscarriages. We really feel her grief and her pain. Moncrieff doesn’t neglect to show us that such loss can affect men too. Daniel, turning to spiritualism, seems in danger of losing the plot.
The Angel of the Street lamps is a charming, beautifully written page turner, full of substance in it, and food for thought. I loved it.

© Sue Leonard. 2013

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