Thursday, 17 March 2016

St Patrick’s Day: A Modern Irish Writer



The Secret Place by Tana French

published 2014



Secret Place


An evening in early November, the air just starting to flare with little savoury bursts of cold and turf-smoke. The four of them are in their cypress glade, snug in the lovely pocket of free time between classes and dinner. Chris Harper (over the wall and far away, not even a whisper of a thought in any of their minds) has six months, a week and four days left to live.

They are scattered on the grass, lying on their backs, feet dangling from crossed knees. They have hoodies and scarves and Uggs, but they’re holding out a last few days against winter coats. It’s day and night at once: one side of the sky is glowing with pink and orange, the other side is a frail full moon hanging in darkening blue. Wind moves through the cypress branches, a slow soothing hush. Last period was PE, volleyball; their muscles are slack and comfortably tired. They’re talking about homework.

Selena asks, ‘Did you guys do your love sonnets yet?’

commentary: For previous instances of St Patrick’s Day I have done James Joyce’s The Dead (best short story ever written? – and one of my favourite blog pictures.) I have featured John McGahern’s So They May Face the Rising Sun (an all-time favourite book, and – I modestly think – a perfectly chosen picture.) Last year I went with Donal Og, in my view one of the most beautiful love poems ever written, and one that was much tweeted and RT-ed and clicked on when I put it on social media.

The Secret Place is a different kind of book, but still a great one: it’s one of the best crime stories I’ve read over the past few years, and I am now looking forward to reading the rest of French’s oeuvre. A couple of different people have recommended the writer to me – I’m not sure if they specifically said Secret Place, but I liked the idea of the school setting.

There’s a neat double structure. The setting is Dublin, and a pair of posh religious boarding schools next door to each other. New evidence has come to the police regarding a murder the year before: a teenage pupil from the boys’ school was found dead in the grounds of the girls’ school. The crime remained unsolved: so now two cops head into the girls’ school, St Kilda’s, to see what they can come up with. Their chapters alternate with flashbacks to the school events that led up to the murder. The whole of the current-time investigation takes place over one day, and entirely within the school: this is claustrophobic and atmospheric, and helps build a satisfying tension. Someone knows something, and it must be one of 8 girls, who divide neatly into a nice group and a not-so-nice one. The boys’ school is hardly touched on at any point in the book: this is a book about girls.

French’s style is quite literary and airy, and the book is not short, but I found it a complete page-turner – I loved reading about the lives of the girls, and desperately wanted to know what had happened. Their conversations and thoughts and fears, and their social events, and their clothes, seemed authentic to me. Their strong feelings for each other, the importance and magic of friendship, the way they sing together and giggle, the way they cope with their maturing at different rates – all were done lightly but perfectly.

I also loved the novel-aspects, the glancing comments on life – for example when an older, unmarried teacher gives two pupils permission to step out of the Valentine's dance:
Selena, slipping out of the door, understands that she and Chris weren’t the ones who got the permission; that it was a decades-lost boy at some half-forgotten dance, his bright eager face, his laugh.
The book reminded me of Donna Tartt, and not just because Tartt’s The Secret History covered similar ground.

It’s a long book, and I know some people found it repetitious, but I was more than happy to get lost in the world of St Kilda’s, and read every word up to the satisfying ending. 








20 comments:

  1. Really enjoyed this Moira as I don't know anything about this author (for a minute assumed it was another Nicci Gerrard / Sean French pseudonym). Sounds great!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh yes, I hadn't thought of that! I always get confused by the French/Gerrard pairing. I think this one appeals particularly to those of us who once were teenage girls (however long ago) but (based on this one) she seems like a really good author to me. I'm so pleased to have found a new writer I like so much.

      Delete
  2. I'm glad to hear you liked this one as much as you did, Moira. I think French has real talent, and her style is such that you can keep turning and swiping pages. I wouldn't say you turn pages because the story is edge-of-your-seat gripping - more that you get caught up. Or perhaps that's just me. At any rate, I'll be keen to know what you think of you read more of her work.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Margot, you are one of the people who recommended Tana French to you, so thank you! I'm glad I finally got round to her, and am looking forward to being equally gripped by her other books.

      Delete
  3. I read this recently and was gripped. Yes, she really seems to enter a teenage world - though actually these girls are not a lot like the ones I know (thank goodness!). In the world of the novel they are convincing and that's all that matters.
    Yes, 'The Dead' is a wonderful, wonderful story.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Those Irish writers, why are they all so good!
      Glad you liked this one too - I found those girls all too convincing. Look forward to more by her.

      Delete
  4. I've read all of Tana French's books and each one is amazing. This last one was particularly good. Counting the days till her next book comes out.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You are definitely encouraging me to get to another one soon!

      Delete
  5. I read the first book in the series four years ago, and then bought the next three books. Haven't read them yet, I think they seem so long when I consider them. I liked In the Woods a lot, but the main characters change from book to book and I have wondered how much difference that would make. I will be interested to see what you think of some of the other books in the series.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I whizzed through this one, even though it was long. I think I would probably choose to read another one when I had a long journey, or if I were on vacation - those are situations where I don't mind length at all.

      Delete
  6. I think Tana French is one of the best contemporary mystery writers. This one was good, but all of her books are good reads, although I think they vary and personal taste does come into the evaluations of them.
    Faithful Place is excellent, as is In the Woods. I liked The Likeness, although there were criticisms of it. I thought Broken Harbor was well-done, but too long and the last 1/4 got repetitive.
    The Secret Place was interesting, but actually I liked the dialogues between the two main detectives and their interactions with the young students.
    All in all, Tana French is a writer whose books I will not skip and will read all of them, gobbling them up.
    She is a leading Irish woman mystery writer, but her fame should lead us all into that world. There are many talented women crime fiction writers in Ireland today.

    Time for them to be known globally.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Kathy - I think you were one of the people recommending this writer to me,and I agree with your verdict, and look forward to the others in the series.

      Delete
  7. Can't remember the last "Irish" book I picked up - shame on me!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You definitely should be looking at more Irish writers! Mind you - McKinty? Ms French isn't as hard-boiled as some of your authors, but I still reckon you might like her. Maybe not this one - set in a school - but one of the others.

      Delete
  8. There are a lot of Irish women mystery writers: Claire McGowan, Jane Casey, Sinead Crowley, many more.
    Declan Burke at Crime Always Pays blog is very inclusive of Irish women writers, brings news and interviews.
    There is also Cora Harrison, but hers are historical novels, about a 16th-century Irish woman judge who says in one book in response to a British merchant discussing the death penalty in England for theft, that there are not even any jails in her country. I wish I had more time to read her
    books as I would learn a lot.

    Right now I'm stewing about an op-ed in the New York Times which says that Ireland has no separate identity from Britain! Then what was the independence movement all about going back 700 years?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. What? What is the NYT thinking of? I would very strongly dispute that - both historically and just from looking at the two countries and knowing many people from both. I suppose I'm going to have to go and read the op-ed now...
      thanks for the info on Irish women writers - I really like the sound of the one about the judge.

      Delete
  9. Here is the link to the NY Times op-ed:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/25/opinion/inventing-the-irish-easter-rising.html?src=me&_r=0

    The line, "The Irish have always had a British heritage" belies history: the Norman invasion in the 1100s leading to hundreds o f years of British rule, the Tdor take-over of Ireland in the 16th century, imposing English laws, language and culture. (Does the writer forget there is an Irish language, and, as Cora Harrison says, there were Irish laws.)

    This did get my "Irish" up. I'd like to write to the Times, maybe will. If you do, you can add my name.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I didn't recognize his picture at all. As someone who has been visiting Ireland from the UK my whole life, the remarkable thing is how much the two countries have diverged in fact - I was always struck by how European the Republic felt, compared with the UK. Ireland embraced Europeanism: if his argument was that it had a European identity I would have agreed...
      And if independence was as unwanted as he said, how come it was so complete and so successful so quickly? Of course there were the Northern Ireland Troubles, but Eire became completely its own state very satisfactorily.
      I'm glad you pointed this out to me, but it makes me cross!

      Delete
  10. What about poor Wolfe Tone who died fighting for Irish independence in the late 1700s, James Connelly and the others in the Easter Uprising and Bobby Sands, who died during a hunger strike in the 1980s, I think. Lots of others who have been in the Republican movement for years.
    A good PBS special on over here on what led up to 1916, narrated by a favorite, Liam Neeson. It was very good.
    That program mentioned that Britain denied civil rights to Irish Catholics (in I forget what year).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think that Liam Neeson programme is being shown here - I must watch it.

      Delete