Monday, May 26, 2014

In The Woods - Tana French

A boy loses his memory of the events of a day when his two friends go missing. Sounds intriguing? Then the boy grows up to be a policeman and has to investigate a case at the very same location where the original incident occurred. Sounds a bit too hard to digest? What if the narrator of the novel is the boy who has now grown up, how much will you believe him.  Well, 'Tana French' takes this seemingly incredulous scenario in her novel 'In the Woods' and weaves in a perfectly plausible, heart-pounding mystery, a novel which is ultimately a sad story about people trying to make/find their way through life.

One day, Rob goes into the woods with his 2 friends and is found hours later with blood over him. His friends are never found and he doesn't (or says so) remember anything about what happened. After the incident, his entire life is spent trying to come to terms with it. Now a detective, he catches a case when a young girl is murdered in the same woods where his friends went missing and he is assigned the case.

Though the murder occurs fairly early, the first part of the novel is spent in establishing Rob's every day personal/professional  life, his friendship with Cassie and in setting up the groundwork for the rest of the novel. It may seem labored at times but is well worth the time. We learn about the drudgery of everyday police life, the sexism, gossips in it, we learn how Rob and Cassie came to be both ideal professional partners and close friends. 

As we learn more and more, a few queries come to the reader. Is this murder related to the incident that involved Rob. Will a killer (assuming that the 2 missing kids were indeed killed) strike after twenty years or is this something unrelated? The family of the murdered girl seems to be odd to say the least. Did the family have anything to do with it, was there any sexual/physical abuse of the kids within the family. Why was the young girl and her twin frequently ill. 

And what of Rob? Has he really forgotten what happened when his friends went missing or he is suppressing something (either consciously or sub-consciously). Because the reader has to remember one thing that Rob says at the beginning  "What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this - two things: I crave truth. And I lie." So, how much of what Rob is narrating is true, not just about the events of that fateful day of his life and also about the events of the murder that he investigated? A crime fiction with an unreliable narrator, what a potent combination. In fact, after completing the novel, one could look back the events, viewing them through this quote by Rob and a whole new story (or stories) could open up to you.

But this is not just a standard mystery and hence 'Tana' concentrates on the players involved too. What toll will this investigation take on Rob, will his carefully constructed facade of stability hold on in the face of this case which hits so close to home (literally and metaphorically), will it impact his professional and personal relationships. One doubt that the reader would have at the beginning, is how can Rob investigate this case when there is so much emotionally related to him. The question actually should be as to how his superior allows him to investigate, because Rob (though initially a bit unsure) would want to be in this case as he would feel it may given some closure (of what? no one including Rob would know that), in any case, it is a given that Rob would be drawn to it. Tana anticipates this and creates a scenario where Rob is able to handle the case, But of course, it does add to the tension of what would happen if his superior finds about his past, will he do it before the case is solved and if so what happens to Rob. Will both the cases (even if they are related or unrelated) ever be solved?

Whatever we know about the incidents of the case, it is only as much as Rob wants us to know. So it is with the other characters involved in it. There is Cassie, a perfect friend, sibling, lover, really she could be anyone to you, but if is she is on your side, you can go to war with her, knowing that she will take care of your back. In fact, she competes with Rob in grabbing our attention and frequently succeeds too. You want to comfort her, hug her, assure that you will keep her safe, all the while knowing that she is the one who would do all these things to you and doesn't need much comforting herself. That's the effect of her character having this unique mixture of seeming vulnerability mixed with steel. But what impact will this case have on her, will she come out of this unscathed? 

If only Cassie had been a character in a series of novels, she would have become an unforgettable one. She is unforgettable even now (it is possible that even Rob fades from your memory, but Cassidy not much chance),  but she could have become more well known,  and unforgettable in the sense that she becomes embedded in the public consciousness, a la Salander. She would have been a heroine for our times. Maybe Tana saw this potential and that's why she gave the stage to her in her next novel 'The Likeness', but that is for another post. One quibble I had with her character was her (unofficial) profiling of people. Yes, it is mentioned that she did a part of a psychology course (but it is not known why she left it in the middle), but would that be enough to be proficient enough to act as some kind of unofficial profiler? Of course, one can be inherently attuned to be this kind of thing, but still this doesn't seem to fit it, but it does add to the mystique of her character. 

As both the case and the characters unravel, we rush towards the end, with an impending sense of doom that nothing is going to end well, even  if the case is solved. There is a too glibly and hastily planned 'entrapment'  to get at the truth and though Tana (via Rob) gives the rationale behind this anticipating the reader's disbelief, it does take a bit of swallowing to do. But anyway, just another minor quibble. Just when you think that things have been resolved, there is another devious  (or delicious depending on the reader) twist, the best part of which is that the groundwork for this has been laid early on in the novel and the fact that is fits in so perfectly with how one of the character has been played by another. Yes, there is a good chance that one could guess the culprit (particularly after an incident that occurs in the middle), and I did too, but the best part is that one can never be sure about it. One cannot say that I was 100% sure about the culprit, the best one could say that I had a suspicion. This is not a knock on the novel, this kind of resolution is much better than one where the author doesn't show any of his cards and springs a complete surprise at the very end. It takes a gutsy author to show her cards (partially) early on, have the conviction that the reader may not guess based on it and even if so, ensure that he is uncertain and hence is still surprised at the end. These are the novels that make crime fiction an interactive one with both the author and trying competing and the author trying to stay one step ahead.

A murder, thrills, chills, the steady build up of tension to a crescendo with a solid denouement , all the staples of good crime fiction are there in this novel. But it is not about these alone. This is  also about how circumstances change our relationships with whom we are closest and the world in general and also about how relationships or the lack of one lead to circumstances that result in pain for everyone concerned. In some ways, the novels speaks of things that 'literature' is supposed to do and does. Take the mystery out of Rob's childhood incident, remove the murder and you would get a tale of pain, loss and (hopefully) redemption. And yes, this novel also tells that pieces of a jigsaw puzzle does not always fall into places, not everything gets tied up neatly at the end and that ultimately, for some (a lot of) people there is no final destination, just one long unending journey through life. This is much more than just a good mystery read, it is a keeper.

I read Tana's 'The Likeness'  before reading this one. Though the incidents in the novels are unrelated and they can be read in any order, if you like me have read 'The Likeness' first, I would suggest to do a quick re-read (like me) of it , not entirely, but at-least of the first 50 odd pages. You get to know a bit more about Cassie's past and the impact that 'In the Woods' had on her. 

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