Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Complex Cocktail of Characters: Broken Harbor by Tana French

Broken Harbor
by Tana French
Reviewed by Andi Diehn

Rule number one: Expect the unexpected when reading a Tana French novel.

I read French's previous novel, Faithful Place, over a day or two of lounging in a lawn chair, a glass of chilled chardonnay close at hand, on a sunny porch on Martha's Vineyard.  A week on an island with only your best friend for company is a rare thing when you have three small children, a house, a husband, several jobs, and many, many animals back in black fly-infested New Hampshire. I took full advantage by saving Faithful Place for that week.  And it didn't disappoint.

Broken Harbor was a very different kind of reading experience.  I read much of French's fourth installment of her series of psychological thrillers in three-minute bursts while I waited for the coffee shop guy to hand me a breakfast sandwich through my car window.  I read some of it on the bathroom floor, shielding the book from my boys splashing behind me in their nightly tub.  Yes, there was chardonnay, but not soothingly sipped beachside; instead, I gulped at the kitchen counter while I cooked and read, trying not to get tomato sauce on the pages.  I finished the book while my boys were distracted by a Power Rangers movie.  Now I'm writing this while we play hide and seek.  I'm the seeker.  It takes me a very long time to find them.  They're used to it.

Broken Harbor was different for other reasons, beyond the cry of gulls and the sweet gift of time.  For the first hundred pages or so, I was interested and engaged, but not quite charmed.  Her other novels had charmed from page one.  Charm is nothing but sprinkles on top; and yet, I was still sucked into the story in a way that's rare for me in these days of distraction.

The writing in Broken Harbor is deft, crisp, engaged, excellent.  Detective Sergeant Mick Kennedy of the Dublin murder squad has been assigned a case that “should have ended up in the textbooks as a shining example of how to get everything right.”  And for those first hundred pages, everything does go right, at least as right as it can after the Spain family of four is found in their home, three of them dead and the mother barely alive.  Kennedy and his rookie partner, Richie Curran ask their questions, make their observations, follow the steps they trust will lead them toward resolution and justice.

But then we meet Mick's sister, Dina, haunted by her own head and reliant on Mick to provide the steady shore for her tumultuous inner seas.  A-ha.  Complexity.  This is what makes French's characters great: they are never all good or all bad.  There's no such thing as pure evil and pure benevolence.  There are only slushy mixtures of doing-your-best, trying-to-survive, and desperate-as-hell.

Rule number two: when you think you've figured out what the unexpected might be, you're still wrong.

Watch as the case in Broken Harbor starts to reveal its spreading seams:
When I think about the Spain case, from deep inside endless nights, this is the moment I remember. Everything else, every other slip and stumble along the way, could have been redeemed. Cold still air, a weak ray of sun glowing on the wall outside the window, smell of stale bread and apples. I knew Richie was lying to me. He had seen something, heard something, fitted a piece into place and caught a glimpse of some brand-new picture. It was my job to keep pushing until he came clean. I understand that; I understood it then, in that low-ceilinged flat with the dust prickling my hands and clogging the air, I understood – or I would have, if I had pulled myself together, through the fatigue and all the other things that are no excuse – that Richie was my responsibility.

Mick struggles under the stressful triumvirate of his sister, his wobbly partner, and his case, which happens to have occurred in the same town as the tragedy that defined his family so long ago.  The town, once a seaside escape for lucky families, has been developed into a village of shoddily-built houses sold out of shiny catalogues to people who owe far more than the houses are worth, who have no recourse now that the developers have fled without finishing.  For a little while he flirts with boundaries he's never crossed before and I worry for him.  I worry he'll make irrevocable mistakes.  I worry his sister will both disappear and keep showing up.  I worry his partner will break the kind of rule that lies like glue between partners.

And I am charmed.  This book took longer for me to love – maybe because of the way long bits of remembered dialogue are reported impossibly verbatim, or maybe because Mick's righteousness comes across as less wisdom than ego – but French's signature blend of contextual insight and succinct characterization saved the book from being not just a well-written suspense novel but an amazing novel that makes you question, and wonder, and flinch.  Charming.

I'd like to read her next book someplace different.  Maybe on a cruise ship.  Or in a snowed-in cabin where the fire has to be stirred every hour so we don't freeze, a rum cider at my side instead of chardonnay.  But I'm not picky.  French's novels are reason to celebrate with whatever drink at hand.

Andi Diehn is a freelance writer from rural New Hampshire. She has an M.F.A. from Vermont College and has published dozens of short stories and essays.  She shares a blog at

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