At the heart of every Tana French novel lies a central mystery that casts a shadow upon its protagonist. This theme of the unknowability of the self is used to terrific effect in her first book, the multiple award-winning In the Woods, and again in The Likeness. In Faithful Place, French's brilliant third novel, she returns to this idea, where an event from the past, for which the protagonist does not have all the facts, still becomes the fulcrum upon which his entire life turns. But the problem with people whose lives are defined by such moments comes if - or rather when - those moments are proven false.
French takes the peculiarities of the family drama - secrets nesting inside each other like Matrioshka dolls - and weaves them around what is technically a murder mystery. Frank Mackey (formerly a minor character in The Likeness) is the classic rumpled detective of noirish thrillers - divorced, troubled, an escapee from a brutal childhood in Faithful Place, a working-class part of Dublin. He has completely cut off all ties with his family, with the exception of his sister Jackie.
The life-altering event for Frank came at 19, when he planned to run off to London with his girlfriend Rosie Daly - who never turned up for their rendezvous. Twenty years later, Frank is still in Dublin, and now head of the Undercover Squad. When Jackie calls to tell him that Rosie's suitcase has been found, Frank is incapable of walking away. He returns to his childhood home and all its horrors: his alcoholic father, razor-tongued, vicious mother and various resentful siblings. When Rosie's bones are discovered, Frank must admit to himself that his original interpretation of that night's events - that his lover had jilted him - is completely wrong.
Frank embarks on a kind of nightmarish archeological dig as he sifts through the layers of the past searching for anything that could lead him to the truth of what happened to Rosie Daly, and subsequently, what happened (and is happening) to him. It rapidly becomes clear that only someone at home in Faithful Place could have committed the murder - a friend, a neighbour, a family member. As Frank continues his unofficial investigation, he comes to realize that the murder is not perceived as great a crime as his own betrayal - that of leaving, and of becoming the enemy: a cop. But Frank never quite twigs to certain psychological implications - that of all the different kinds of cop he could have become, he chose undercover work, where subsuming one's identity into a role is not only part of the job, but necessary for survival.
Most mysteries begin with a semblance of order, then devolve into the chaos brought on by the crime, which, once resolved, sees order restored. Tana French gets at the darker heart of this paradigm - that all is already chaos, under a falsely placid surface of everyday human interaction, where minor eruptions are just a hint of what is simmering below.
While both In the Woods and The Likeness felt like intensely hypnotic day-trips into the unconscious, spiralling down the dark rabbit holes of identity and selfhood, Faithful Place (and that's a zinger of an ironic title) ventures more literally into the past. Frank Mackey's half-acknowledged longing for his current life to be something other than it is, becomes irrevocably entwined with his longing to know what may be unknowable: the truth of not just one night, but of his entire history. French's deft touch uncovers what is perhaps at the root of all such longing, the desire to return to an unblemished childhood. But if our childhoods, like Frank's, are actually blemished, this becomes an irreconcilable conflict that mars our entire lives. And there lies the central mystery inside all such abused children, the question that will ever go unanswered: why was I not loved? Or, why was I not loved enough?
With the discovery of Rosie's murder, Frank gets at least one answer: He was indeed once loved enough, though the knowledge may have come too late. As the novel moves toward its denouement, and the tension ratchets up, small acts of betrayal culminate in larger ones, and other seeming truths are revealed to be false. As Frank's world is deconstructed even further, even his nine-year-old daughter proves to have an unexpected dark side, and he is left with one final question: Is justice more important than loyalty?
Although the story arc does finally provide the solution to the murder, that's really only the surface of this finely detailed, compelling and claustrophobic novel. Faithful Place grips the reader in its iron vise, like a dark childhood that won't release us until its inevitable, relentless conclusion has been reached.
Sandra Kasturi is a Toronto writer, editor and publisher.