A Vivid Visit to Faithful Place

BlogHer Review

Sure, on the face of it, Tana French's Faithful Place is a crime novel, mystery novel, thriller… whatever your preferred term. There is a death that starts things rolling (although it is an old murder) and there is a murder that follows that in present time, as a direct consequence of the ongoing investigation.

But this novel isn’t about crime-solving. Not really. (Besides, I knew “whodunnit” about halfway through, and I almost never figure these things out early, so there’s not much mystery about “who” for most readers, I suspect -- just about the “why.”) The crimes are the lure. They’re the framework. But mystery is not the heart of the novel.

Because the heart of the novel is about the heart, in a sense, and discovering where it goes. It’s about family and it’s about love, and often it’s about how the two don’t necessarily overlap. To a lesser extent, it’s about belonging (or not) to a community, but in a sense, isn’t that just a variation on family?

In a nutshell, the main character is Frank Mackey, a detective in the Dublin Undercover Squad. In 1985, though, he was a 19-year-old guy from a particularly messed-up family in Ireland looking to run away with the love of his life, Rosie Daly. She didn’t show up for their rendezvous to flee their dead-end lives in a poor, dysfunctional and often unsavory community of Faithful Place and go to England. So he goes alone, thinking she had decided to leave him, and spends the rest of his life always expecting her to show up at some point -- because a note she left him at their rendezvous spot said she would, and she was a woman who kept her word.

As he discovers 22 years later, when Rosie’s suitcase is found in a derelict house in his old neighborhood, the reason she never showed up is because she was killed. And therein lies the reason he is pulled back to Faithful Place, put at odds with local law enforcement, forced to deal with his family (when previously he had stayed in touch only with his sweet-tempered sister Jackie), and made to reassess whether he has really changed much and whether or not Faithful Place is more home for him than he thinks. Whether he has a place in the family he so often despises. Whether he can figure out how and why Rosie died. As Frank is also a divorced man and the father of a 9-year-old girl, his role as a parent and former husband plays out as well.

Though it all, we see how the specter of Rosie has, for 22 years, colored so many of his personal relationships and perhaps hindered them from growing and maturing.

Yes, we eventually find out who killed Rosie in the mid-80s and why… and who killed another innocent soul in 2007 (when most of the action of the novel takes place) who had a connection to her. But the real prize is finding out who Frank really is, even when he doesn’t realize it and won’t admit it even when confronted with the truth of his self, his behavior and his motivations. Frank is a loving and devoted father. He is a man who clearly still loves his ex-wife on some level. He is a man who seeks to be part of something, and it’s not clear that the police force can fulfill that need completely. He’s witty and charming, and very smart. Savvy too, to the point of being highly manipulative at times. At times, he can be an asshole almost as bad as his own father, although not as violent or out-of-control.

The story is well told and the scenes are set very vividly and memorably. I feel like I know Faithful Place from having been there, even though it doesn’t exist anymore and never existed quite in the way presented in the novel. Although the dialogue is sometimes heavy with Irish dialect and slang, it’s no harder to read than a novel set in the American South, really (I’m more concerned younger readers won’t get many of the ‘80s references). The situations are realistic, except for the way Frank’s young daughter eventually gets dragged into the investigation itself, which I found both implausible and unnecessary for advancing the story, as the same thing could have been done with other characters who would have made more sense (I also found that at times his daughter seemed to act younger than her age and at times way more mature than her age). The characters are vivid, Frank in particular. I found myself caring for many of them. But it’s Frank’s journey, ultimately, and it’s a fascinating trip. I find that I respect him, and wish him well in his life following the end of the book. But I’m not sure if I’d like him, precisely, in real life.

And part of that is the decisions he makes, which aren’t always nice ones. One of the biggest choices he makes -- how to deal with the murderer -- is the most frustrating as I look back. You see, there are three ways you can deal with a killer in a situation like this once you discover who it is: You can make sure that person is arrested and faces judgment, you can kill the perpetrator, or you can let that person carry on with their life and let karma sort things out. I won’t tell you which one Frank picks, but it turns out to be the choice that will cause the most disruption, pain and chaos in his own life, his family’s and in Faithful Place. As I finished the book, it seemed clear to me that Frank knew it would be the decision that would mess everyone up the most, even if it was, in many ways, the most righteous choice given the circumstances.

Therein lies my struggle in my journey with Frank, as much as I enjoyed the ride. That big decision toward the end of the book validates Frank’s personal integrity and makes me respect him, but also indicts his motivations and makes me shake my head.

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