***And just like that, after a 3-day reading binge of Faithful Place and Broken Harbour, Tana French joins my list of favorite authors.***
There is no place like home... Well, Frank Mackey knows this phrase can have quite unexpected sinister undertones. After all, he spent 22 years away from the place he grew up and away from his family; and it's only a suitcase found in an abandoned house on his old street, Faithful Place, that can bring Frank back home - and open an old wound that has never healed.
"The suitcase was by the window. It was a pale-blue thing with rounded corners, spotted over with big patches of black mold, and it was a crack open; someone had forced the pathetic tin locks. What got to me was how small it was. Olivia used to pack just about everything we owned, including the electric kettle, for a weekend away. Rosie had been heading for a whole new life with something she could carry one-handed."
You see, once upon a time Frank was a 19-year-old raised in the dysfunctional family terrorized by a violent alcoholic father in a poor working neighborhood in Dublin, where you were fine as long as you went to church every Sunday, and always put your family first, and never ever squealed to the police about anything. The street, Faithful Place, was its own little suffocating universe with few hopes for its children to grow up different from their parents, to break out of the familiar rhythms of life.
"The rules in my road went like this: no matter how skint you are, if you go to the pub then you stand your round; if your mate gets into a fight, you stick around to drag him off as soon as you see blood, so no one loses face; you leave the heroin to them down in the flats; even if you're an anarchist punk rocker this month, you go to Mass on Sunday; and no matter what, you never, ever squeal on anyone."
But Frank and his first love Rosie had a plan - run away to England and start their new life together, full of hopes, dreams and expectations. Frank and Rosie were supposed to meet on the night of their getaway - except that Rosie never showed up. What did show up was her suitcase with her birth certificate and ferry tickets meant for their joint getaway - showed up two decades later, found in an abandoned house in Faithful Place. It seems that Rosie never managed to leave the place she so desperately wanted to escape - just like she has never ever left the thoughts of Frank Mackey, now a gruff Undercover Detective.
"I had spent my whole adult life growing around a scar shaped like Rosie Daly's absence."
And now Frank returns, hoping to solve the mystery of Rosie's death - and immediately gets sucked in right into the life he tried so hard to escape - right into "the bubbling cauldron of crazy that is the Mackeys at their finest."
"In less than a day and a half, I had had enough of my family to last me another twenty-two years. That morning in the shower, I would have bet my soul to Satan that nothing in this world could drag me back into Faithful Place."
What I love about Tana French's books is that they are hard to pigeonhole. If I had to describe them - and that includes this one, oh it so does! - I'd say something along the lines: psychological mind-f*ckery that usually starts as a murder mystery and quickly develops into an unsettling character study in a guise of police procedural, with the inevitable result of you coming to deeply care for the said characters just to watch Tana French f*ck up their lives while making your heart ache and leaving your soul shattered. And, of course, this pathetic attempt at a summary does not do her books any justice.
"Here's the real risk in Undercover, in the field and out: you create illusions for long enough, you start thinking you're in control. It's easy to slide into believing you're the hypnotist here, the mirage master, the smart cookie who knows whats real and how all the tricks are done. The fact is you're still just another slack-jawed mark in the audience. No matter how good you are, this world is always going to be better at this game. Its more cunning than you are, its faster and its a whole lot more ruthless. All you can do is try to keep up, know your weak spots and never stop expecting the sucker punch."
Frank Mackey is a cynical man always prepared for the worst after having seen the worst every day on his job; a man who is not a welcome figure in his old neighborhood that does not trust police; and underneath the rough exterior, secretly a man still mourning the loss of Rosie all those years ago, still missing his ex-wife Olivia, and counting his young daughter among what he'd readily die for. Oh, and he's a man who is not ready to let go of the long-standing resentment towards his past and his family - which are the same thing as far as he's concerned. And let's not forget that Frank is the man who, in the eyes of his older brother Shay, has no loyalty towards his family - but who has created his own family, the family he is ready to do anything to fiercely protect, and the family he cannot help but hurt sometimes, because the world can be a mean sonovabitch. His family of one - daughter Holly, a loved and sheltered child who nevertheless has Mackee blood - the blood of that aforementioned "bubbling cauldron of crazy" that fiercely protects its own. It's Holly that's never out of Frank's thoughts.
"I want my daughter to learn that not everything in this world is determined by how often she hears it or how much she wants it to be true or how many other people are looking. Somewhere in there, for a thing to count as real, there has got to be some actual bloody reality. God knows she's not going to learn that anywhere else. So I'm going to have to teach her all by myself."
"I'm trying to bring up a kid, Jackie. That alone is enough to scare the living daylights out of any sane human being. Throw in the fact that I'm trying to bring her up in a setting where she's constantly being told to think about nothing except fashion, fame and body fat, ignore the man behind the curtain and go buy yourself something pretty... I'm petrified, all the time. I could just about stay on top of it when she was a little kid, but every day shes getting older and I'm getting scareder. Call me crazy, but I kind of like the thought of her growing up in a country where people occasionally have no choice but to focus on something more crucial than dick-replacement cars and Paris Hilton."
Frank Mackey is a gruff seasoned Detective, but his job and the solution to the old disappearance/murder all take a backseat here. What takes central stage are the emotions and complicated family relationships of past and present, all that people dismissively and resentfully refer to as "baggage" - just like a literal piece of baggage that finally reveals that Rosie has never made the escape she so desperately wanted.
And so we have the rest of the madness, both past and present, forming the rest of the novel's heart and soul. The crazy dysfunctional family with its deep secrets, trying desperately to keep up its face in front of the neighborhood, hiding the damage inflicted by the violent alcoholic father who treats wife and kids as punching bags for his pent-up mindless rage; sibling rivalries that end up being rooted in more than just expected everyday resentment; fierce protectiveness that mixes love and hate indiscriminately; the blind happiness of first love and the blind hate of old resentments; the sharp class divides of then and now that Frank Mackey now has to straddle; and the danger of mixing personal and professional.
And we know - because it's a Tana French novel, after all - that in the end there will be no feel-good warm fuzzies, that Frank Mackey will be left raw and hurt and forever changed by the experience, and that the same thing will happen to the reader. And so we brace ourselves for what's to come, and treasure the moments of happiness with the characters we came to care for, knowing that the happiness will not last.4.5 stars - and childish excitement upon learning that Frank Mackey may make a reappearance in French's fifth Dublin Murder Squad novel.
A side note: Despite being marketed as a series, Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad novels are quite stand-alone, related only by a peripheral character in one of them making an appearance as a central character in another - so that you can pick up any one of them as your first Tana French experience. And you should - because they are great.
For other examples of me gushing over Tana French's novels, see my review of 'In the Woods, my review of 'The Likeness', and my review of 'Broken Harbour'.