Thursday, October 23, 2014

Tana French's The Secret Place: Two Tales for the Price of One

Amazon let me know the release date for Tana French’s newest novel, The Secret Place. Unable to wait a day or even two, I pre-ordered so that on that first day in September, the novel whispered through the air and landed. Bathed in the glow of Kindle’s light and French’s art, I let the dark fall as I read, enjoying parallel tales.

One tale opens the novel as a Prologue set in the crucible of a girls’ boarding school where four teens confront the dark and themselves. The first chapter introduces the second tale featuring detectives who re-open a case gone cold. What ties the two tales together is Holly Mackey, a girl determined to save her friend, one of the four teens bound by friendship and misguided oaths.

Al Griffin Photography
The novel unfolds with each chapter revealing more about the characters and the events that bring them together in The Secret Place. There the past transforms girls into adults because, too soon, they are penned in the consequences of their choices. Their truth stands stark under the moon’s soft light. And there, the detectives uncover another truth about the human heart, infinitely puzzling, a phantom not easily detected by facts in evidence or instincts dulled by the mask of civilization.

Unlike those British school boys imagined by Golding, alone on an uninhabited island, these British school girls still have the chains of society, the judgment of nuns, and the prison of peer pressure to restrain them, but it is the nature of youth to chafe, scoff, and dare. These girls do. They become criminals—just small time, risking little more than expulsion. They sneak out at night to revel in the night air and the freedom found in friendship. They retreat to their secret place, a place that shields them from view, a verdant place with the heady scent of hyacinth in the air, a place that bears silent witness to a senseless death, a boy sacrificed on the altar of idols, not gods.

The adult detectives are different from the girls, not in obvious ways such as age or self-awareness. Moran and Conway eschew the tight binding that friendships impose. Moran believes that close friends not only define a person, but confine him. Conway believes that friends are best kept at some distance from the work place; she has no interest in becoming pals with her co-workers. Both detectives are also from working class families, their schooling and youth far removed from the privileges afforded girls at Kilda’s.

In other ways, the detectives differ, one from the other. Conway expects something rotten at the core of privileged teen girls and finds it. Moran is more reluctant to believe in their rotten, petty little plots and machinations until he spends a day among them. He learns that even young girls are capable of schemes and careless behaviors. Even teen girls can set in motion events that end in murder.

French deftly moves between the girls’ past and the detectives’ present, chapter by chapter, until the two converge in the killer revealed. French sustains suspense by laying down tight stitches in an intricate embroidered design. We readers wince and cheer simultaneously in our understanding when that design becomes clear. Misunderstandings, misplaced loyalties, secrets, and raw need have conspired to end a boy. We readers hope his loss has not been in vain, that the survivors will not waste what understanding they’ve gained.

Reading Challenge:

Read Tana French’s novels: In the Woods, The Likeness, Faithful Place, Broken Harbor, and The Secret Place.

Writing Challenge:

Move from past to present, revealing antecedent action and flashbacks in chapters separate from chapters about the present.