Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Review: The Likeness.

NY: Viking/Penguin, 2008.
ISBN 9780670018864

Michael Sedano

Colonialized people flit about the periphery of Tana French's second novel, The Likeness, giving the mystery an interesting subtext that should be appealing to colonized people elsewhere. At the same time, the novel moves in and out of Irish and US cultural references so seamlessly that the gulf between the isolated villagers and worldwide English-language culture grows all the wider, even as it grows smaller for the rest of us. That gulf, plus an interesting premise, give the novel a high degree of readability, despite the author's struggle to get the story started.

Outside Dublin, a dying Irish village still seething resentment after centuries domination by the lords of the now-seedy manor house, shuns the new owner, the last remaining heir bearing the family name. For his part, the heir is more than content to shelter himself and his ersatz family of six within Whitethorn's walls, where the two women and four men fashion their own fantasy world that comes tumbling down around them when one of them winds up dead.

The dead woman is doppelgänger to detective Cassie Maddox. The deadly implications of Cassie's physical resemblance to the dead woman are only part of the story. More troubling--stunning in fact--is the dead woman's theft of Cassie's undercover identity, Lexie Madison. Where's she come from, who was she, why does she look exactly like Cassie?

Taking advantage of the virtual twinship between the victim and the cop, Dublin police insert Cassie as Lexie into the manor house to ferret out the facts and identify a suspect for the stabbing of their roommate. It's a plot rich in psychological torment. Real name, unknown, has been Lexie in her world. Now Cassie, creator of the false Lexie, must assume the dead Lexie's identity, who had been real. But Cassie is her own person, albeit injured from events just prior to the novel.

Author French uses the criss-crossed identity to create a struggle between Detective Cassie, Lexie--or whoever that person was for real--and Cassie/Lexie's conflicted conscience for betraying her best friends. Well, not her best friends, Lexie's best friends. And that wasn't really Lexie. But one, or more, of these BFF murdered the pregnant Lexie, whoever she actually was. And who was the father? This shifting of conscience and consciousness makes for some interesting issues about identity and reality.

French uses the subtext of class and regional struggle to toss a red herring into the crime solving plot, while making a telling point about the dissolution of cultural boundaries. The entire village could be suspects in the murder, except it's the kind of backwater place whose median age grows older by the year as the younger villagers take off for the big city at their earliest opportunity. In fact, only three locals emerge as suspects. The cops haul them in for interrogation. Compounding the locals' xenophobia are the accents of the cops. One suspect challenges the cops with their fancy accents not to think him stupid just because of his local dialect.

When, one night, a vandal hurls a rock through a picture window. Cassie and two of the men race into the darkness in angry bloodlust. Their quarry disappears in familiar territory and the housemates flush him out with challenges to the vandal's manhood, and especially the cultural gap between colonized and master. When one of Lexie's mates laughs in a London accent that a good horsewhipping would cure the bad attitude of the local bumpkins, the local hurls himself out of the darkness into a bloody fistfight with the three adversaries. Was the local the murderer? Will he succeed in burning the place to the ground and sleep in its ashes?

One of the more satisfying elements of this Irish novel is the mutual intelligibility of its English and cultural allusions. There are numerous references to US-based pop culture. In one instance, a couple of cops talking about the inmates of the lockup allude to there being plenty of "mother stabbers and father rapers", a bowlderized line from Arlo Guthrie's 1960's comic protest song, "Alice's Restaurant." (Or perhaps I remember it inaccurately and it's a direct quotation from Guthrie's classic).

Unlike works translated from Spanish into British English, there are few words a United States reader won't ken. For example, in describing the implicit contempt for rural folk seen in how administrators assign local policemen, we come across this description leading with a delightful timesis:

Rathowen station was craptacular. I'd seen plenty like it, dotted around back corners of the country: small stations caught in a vicious circle, getting dissed by the people who hand out funds and by the people who hand out posts and by anyone who can get any other assignment in the universe. Reception was one cracked chair, a poster about bike helmets and a hatch to let Byrne stare vacantly out the door, rhythmically chewing gum. The interview room was apparently also the storeroom: it had a table, two chairs, a filing cabinet--no lock--a help-yourself pile of statement sheets and, for no reason I could figure out, a battered eighties riot shield in one corner. There was yellowing linoleum on the floor and a smashed fly on one wall. No wonder Byrne looked the way he did.

Except for the hatch, the description could as easily capture a substation in southern Colorado or California's central valley. Would this be a "dutch door" or an access window cut into the station's modest portal? Ni modo.

French's prose is more than serviceable. The housemates are Ph. D. students in literature at a Dublin university, so the writer must echo their postgrad ambience through vocabulary and description. But French is at her best when elevating mundane events into moments trapping Cassie in convoluted reverie between the detective's recent disastrous experience and the romance of what could be in her doppelgänger life:

I was buttoned tight and untouchable in my blue dress and that was a sweet sad thing that had happened to some other girl, a long time ago. Rafe was picking up the rhythm and Abby was swaying faster, snapping her fingers: "I could say bella, bella, even say wunderbar, each language only helps me tell you how grand you are. . ." Justin caught me by the waist and spun me off the floor in a great flying circle, his face flushed and laughing close to mine. The wide bare room tossed Abby's voice back and forth as if there were someone harmonizing in every corner and our footsteps rang and echoed till it sounded like the room was full of dancers, the house calling up all the people who had danced here across centuries of spring evenings, gallant girls seeing gallant boys off to war, old men and women straight-backed while outside their world disintegrated and the new one battered at their doors, all of them bruised and all of them laughing, welcoming us into their long lineage.

It's a beautiful image but the opposite of what actually is transpiring. Cassie has insinuated herself into the falsely idyllic homelife, not to become one of their lineage but to rip it apart in murderous violence. And the manor house is not a place of gallantry but the source of hatred and oppression for the local folk.

Yet, in all this power and cultural conflict, Tana French doesn't quite create a compelling novel to spellbind her reader. Five chapters to set up the undercover role are four too many. The denouement when we learn who Lexie really was and the outcome for the housemates is unnecessary. Under the old adage of "leave 'em wanting more," this could have been left as part of the mystery, or grist for the next novel. The Likeness, the publisher says, continues a story thread and characters from the writer's first novel, In the Woods. There's a ton of allusions to events in Cassie's immediate past that filled that first title, so there would be little loss to have omitted these afterthoughts and plugged them into the subsequent Cassie Maddox tale. Let us trust the publisher will spell the author's name correctly in the next blurb--"Tanya" Penguin calls her, perhaps caught in the atmosphere of mixed identities when it invites, "View our feature on Tanya French's The Likeness"--and will exert tighter editorial control for a tauter story that moves much faster through otherwise exciting material. This author deserves it.

Hachette / La Bloga Book Give Away Concludes - 5 Winners

Observing Fiestas Patrias Month, in the US under public law 100-402 "Hispanic Heritage Month", it has been La Bloga's pleasure to offer a delightful collection of these eight Hachette titles to the gente answering questions drawn from a week's columns at La Bloga.

Dream in Color By Linda Sánchez , Loretta Sánchez ISBN: 0446508047
Gunmetal Black
By Daniel Serrano ISBN: 0446194131
The Gifted Gabaldón Sisters
By Lorraine López ISBN: 0446699217
Bless Me, Ultima By Rudolfo Anaya ISBN: 0446675369
By Oscar Casares ISBN: 9780316146807
The Hummingbird's Daughter
By Luis Urrea ISBN: 0316154520
The General and the Jaguar By Eileen Welsome ISBN: 0316715999
Tomorrow They Will Kiss
By Eduardo Santiago ISBN: 0316014125

Our most recent contest winner is Diana Chavez of Littleton, Colorado. Here's a list of all five La Bloga readers to whom Hachette is mailing the collection:

Tom Miller
Tucson AZ

John Alba Cutler
Evanston IL

Eduardo Pena
Tucson, AZ

Marie Madrid
Denver, CO

Diana Chavez
Littleton, CO

I hope the winners will enjoy the work enough to motivate them to do a guest review of one or more of their favorites. Do know that La Bloga welcome, encourages, guest columnists. If you have a review of a good book, a cultural or arts event, an extended response to something you've read here at La Bloga, please share it. Click here to declare your interest in being La Bloga's guest.

Flor Y Canto 2010 Call for Writers

Plans are underway to hold a renewal of the 1973 Festival de Flor Y Canto at the University of Southern California in September 2010. If you were a participant in that first Flor Y Canto, or would like to join the 2010 event, click here for details.

That's the penultimate Tuesday of October. Dia de los Muertos approaches, so you'd better watch out, you'd better not pout, el cucuy is coming to town dressed as La Llorona, a ghostie or a goblin or candy-seeking chupadulces.

See you next week.


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