Why does writing about a favourite author always seem to be the most difficult?
I don't want to come off as biased, I suppose, but the reality is that I am. But I'm not biased because she's a secret auntie or anything (although how incredible would that be??), I'm simply deeply loyal after four magical, intelligent, disturbing, lovely novels.
If you haven't read French before, first of all, I'm not entirely sure we can be friends until you do, but if for some insane reason you haven't, here's what I realized about her, while reading The Secret Place: it's not so much the plots, nor the setting, that makes her so incredible. It is, in fact, the words she weaves together, the images and the ideas, and the lyrics.
Don't get me wrong: French's voice is all about Ireland, and her stories are inextricably, intimately founded in Ireland's psyche. Her characterizations are spot-on, her relations of the way people think, and how their actions are motivated by those thoughts, are incredible, insanely skillful.
But what got me thinking about the words and images and sentences she crafts, this time, was the realization that someone, somewhere has undoubtedly already attempted to compare Secret Place to The Secret History. They can't help themselves. It's some sort of insidious, unwritten literary rule: if it has a group of tightly knit students in a remote boarding school, and it's all about them against the world, and potentially the guy they maybe-murdered, then it must be just like Tartt's Secret History, right (or trying to be like it, which is usually when people are trying to be insulting in some way)? And while I liked The Secret History (and adored The Goldfinch), I'm really, really damn sick of this.
But the point here isn't so much a rant about reviewers/publishers/blurbers inability to come up with something more original than to attempt this comparison, but rather to make a larger point about how French can take a plot that could be rather pedestrian in the hands of another writer (and again, I am not talking about Tartt, here, it's those others that brought up Secret History, not me), and just create a wholly new and fantastically magical thing, based just on her writing itself.
Other writers may, and have, written plotlines similar to French's stories, whether before or after, it doesn't matter, and I'm not saying that no one's original here, I'm just saying that there are only so many ways to send the hero on a journey, and only so many ways a man can be killed, and only so many reasons for finishing the bastard (or the sweet innocent) off. But then French absolutely transforms her stories with words like:
Be scared, you have to be scared, ordering like this is your one absolute duty. Be scared you're fat, be scared your boobs are too big and be scared they're too small. Be scared to walk on your own, specially anywhere quiet enough that you can hear yourself think. Be scared of wearing the wrong stuff, saying the wrong thing, having a stupid laugh, being uncool. Be scared of guys not fancying you; be scared of guys. Be scared of girls, they're all vicious, they'll cut you down before you can cut them. Be scared of strangers. Be scared you won't do well enough on your exams, be scared of getting in trouble. Be scared terrified petrified that everything you are is every kind of wrong. Good girl.
If you're a woman and didn't grow up with at least some of these thoughts and fears in your head, then good on you. You grew up in a fantastical world of support and safety and probably no men (or teenage boys). For the rest of us, French's observations of the world of teenage girls is sharp, devastatingly honest, breathtaking.
The smell of burning stays. For weeks afterward she catches it on her, savage and holy. Chunks of her mind fall off sometimes. At first it frightens her, but she realizes once they're gone she doesn't miss them, so it doesn't bother her anymore. The burn scars red and then white.
All of that is implicit in her, curled unimagined inside her bones; but so are hundreds of other latent lives, unchosen and easily vanished as whisks of light.
Becca doesn't wear makeup to the Court because she hates makeup and because the idea of spending half an hour getting ready to sit on a wall in front of a doughnut shop makes her brain short out with stupid.
Next to them, the boys look bare and young. To make up for it, they've gone louder and they're calling each other gay more often.
She wants to get up on the wall and do a handstand, or get someone to race her fast and far enough to wreck them both: anything that will turn her body back into something that's about what it can do, not all about how it looks.
I can't walk away with absolutely no complaints. I'm not blind to the imperfections. Antoinette Conway was a difficult character for me to cozy up to. Not that I was necessarily supposed to, or had to, but there were these characteristics that seemed so drama-queen and overblown, whereas I think they were intended to show how strong she was. Ultimately, they just made her actually seem insecure and I never could tell whether this was French's intention. And the teen-speak attributed to the teenage girls became rather irritating at points. I suppose that's probably the whole point; listen to a large percentage of teenage girls gossiping amongst themselves for too long and you will be irritated. But the slang was heavy, and the contradiction felt too heavily slathered on in balance to the insightful, witty, and intimate things the girls would say at other times (which were the elements that ultimately felt more authentic to me).
But I'm perfectly happy to overlook these minor irritations when I'm pacified with:
And, somewhere in a locked back corner, detectives think old ways. You take down a predator, whatever bleeds out of it flows into you. Spear a leopard, grow braver and faster. All that St. Kilda's gloss, all that walk through old doors like you belong, effortless: I wanted that. I wanted to lick it off my banged-up fists along with my enemy's blood.
I love it when titles reflect elements of the book that you'll never discover until you read it. There are at least three secret places in this novel. There was also something that surprised me, that I don't recall seeing in a Tana French novel before. There's an element I'm going to call magical realism. I debated as to whether to describe it as supernatural, throughout the book, but a caveated addendum, essentially, by one of the characters near the end, sealed it for me as magical realism. I don't recall reading this in a French before, but as with pretty much everything she does, I loved it.
* Advanced reader's copy provided by Penguin.