Tana French returns to the quiet intrigue of the family psychodrama in her fourth novel, Broken Harbour, revelling once again in the slyly ironic and layered implications of the title to point the reader in the right direction.
And once again we have an unreliable narrator and an event from the past that alters his perceptions and affects his ability to recognize parallels in the present. Dublin Murder Squad shining star Mick (Scorcher) Kennedy is called out to a crime scene with his new rookie partner, Richie; a family has been slaughtered, something even a seasoned cop would describe as evil.
Things have gone very wrong indeed in the decayed domestic paradise of Ocean View, Brians-town, disparagingly known as “Broken Harbour” – victim, like many others, of Ireland’s recession: “rows of half-built houses, crowded stark and ugly against the sky, a long banner of plastic flapping hard from a bare beam.” It’s evidence of Ireland’s devastating boom and bust in real estate, where humankind’s mark on the landscape is crumbling while the landscape remains vast and beautiful.
Moral devastation exists here too: The children have been smothered in their beds and the husband and wife viciously stabbed. But there’s a survivor – the wife. Though severely injured, she might recover and be able to tell her story.
In the meantime, Kennedy investigates, and what originally seems fairly cut and dried – husband goes crazy and kills family and self – looks as if it might be something altogether different. For in the otherwise well-kept house are gaping holes in the walls, all kinds of video monitors, as well as a vicious animal trap in the attic that’s big enough for a bear. Paranoia? Delusions? Or has someone been stalking this seemingly happy family?
Kennedy firmly believes that, 90 per cent of the time, this kind of crime doesn’t happen out of nowhere. People invite murder and chaos into the house, and the roots of evil are in the heart of the home, the family. Broken Harbour does double duty as a domestic horror novel about boundaries and transgression: When earth is outside where it belongs, it is soil; when it crosses the barrier of the threshold, it becomes dirt, and no longer belongs.
In French’s previous novel, Faithful Place, the cop dug relentlessly into the past. Here, Kennedy refuses to examine his own history too closely, a history inextricably and secretly linked to Broken Harbour itself. Instead, his entire life is about control. He is happy enough to delve into the lives of the murder victims, but the implications and effects of the darker moments of his own childhood remain opaque. But who can blame him? His mother committed suicide, and one of his sisters is schizophrenic or just plain crazy – whether due to nature or nurture is unclear. Control is the key to everything from handling suspects to wearing immaculate suits and ties, allowing him to present an unassailable front.
Kennedy refuses to see the contradictions in his own life. He states that he doesn’t like “dealing with unusual people,” but his whole life has been spent doing that very thing, from his own family to his chosen profession – a Murder Squad detective who hunts down the unusual people who have broken the ultimate rule. But Kennedy’s famous control starts to unravel, and his own flaws, and his inability to recognize the weaknesses of his partner, help to almost destroy the case.
And though a solution is provided, order does not prevail; the chaos of ordinary lives wins out – tragic losses, crazed siblings, the weight of years spent denying old truths. As Kennedy wonders “whether anything in families is ever innocent,” so does the reader. Broken Harbour shows us the terrible sacrifices people make and the awful things they do based on love, and sometimes, terror and need.
Tana French leaves us lost in a dark labyrinth in which the Minotaur is never conquered, navigating a deceptively placid, reflective sea under which the terrible reefs of the past wait patiently to wreak havoc with the most seasoned traveller.
Sandra Kasturi is most recently the co-editor and publisher of Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing.