Book Reviews: From Mystery Plots To Memory Loss
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
I don’t shop for books and I don’t read reviews in search of suggestions. But my wife is a librarian who reads quickly with every free minute, and she brings books home. I look over the titles and typically pick them up and read less than one chapter before I decide it’s not for me.
The novels are almost always by women. Is this due to my wife’s tastes or the fact that most novelists are female? I don’t know. But two of these books have stood out for their high quality. Yes, I did read them through. They are the ones below.
This is a mystery that is set in a poor (and fictional) Dublin neighborhood called Faithful Place. At its center, are the Mackeys. The Mackeys are smart and tough and some have done well in life, moving beyond the bounds of the old neighborhood. But they are not a happy family. The father was, and remains, an abusive alcoholic, and his grown children are estranged from him and each other.
In fact, one of author Tana French’s best qualities in this book is her refusal to cast any sentimental light on the Mackeys. This may not be remarkable to Irish readers. But to Americans, who have been raised on clichés of a drunk but lovable Irish working class,her approach is very refreshing.
The book begins with a flashback to 1985, when Frank Mackey, at the age of 19, waits on a dark street corner for his girlfriend, Rosie Daly, so they can run away to London. Rosie never shows up and is never seen again by Frank, who assumes she stood him up and left for London on her own. But she lingers in his mind as an idyllic specter, even after Frank grows up, becomes a police detective, has a young daughter and breaks up with his wife.
As you can imagine, what Frank thinks has happened to Rosie is not correct. What happened to her, and the revelations that follow, teach us more about the secrets of the Mackeys and their relationship to Faithful Place.
In one sense, this is a standard crime mystery. Frank Mackey, the main character, is a cop and he talks like a cop. But Tana French is an author with a gift for graphic prose who brings Faithful Place to life as a neighborhood with a strange mix of spirit and hopelessness, where people distrust authority yet have their own strict rules of conduct and hierarchy. In a way, French writes like a man.
And though I’m no expert, her command of Dublin dialect is deep and engaging. I particularly love the Dubliners’ use of the expression “grand,” when asked how they’re doing. The American translation would be “fine,” and in Faithful Place being grand usually means you’re just getting by.
Incidentally, Tana French is a writer with a mixed record. After reading Faithful Place, I picked up her first novel, In the Woods, also a mystery. It was a drawn-out, confused story that was full of people I didn’t care about. By the time you get to the end of it you’re sorry you bothered. My wife, however, recommends The Likeness, also by French.
The first thing to tell you about What Alice Forgot might make you think it must be stupid. It’s about a woman who gets amnesia. Oh, that great old disease, from which so many people in books and movies suffer!
Actually, I once interviewed a man who had suffered amnesia. He told me he regained his memory in great rushes, as if someone was opening a door in his brain.
“What did it feel like?” I asked him.
“Have you ever done a line of cocaine?” he responded.
But getting back to Alice… one day she finds herself collapsed and surrounded by concerned people in a gym where she has been taking a “spin class,” riding a stationary bike. Doing an organized health club activity with lots of leotard-wearing, wealthy moms strikes her as incredibly absurd. But Alice is no longer the person she thought she was.
She thinks she’s 29, in love with her new husband, and expecting her first baby. It turns out she’s 39, a mother of three and in the process of divorcing her husband. That’s what amnesia will do to you!
What Alice Forgot takes place in Sydney, Australia. In a way, this book is very unlike Faithful Place. It’s amusing and glib, where Faithful Place is tragic and hard-edged. But they are similar in the way they animate a place. In the case of Alice, the place is high-tone Sydney suburbs where women drive their kids to soccer practice, have affairs, go to spin class and bake the world’s largest lemon meringue pie. (Read the book)
I can forgive the convenient literary crutch of giving Alice amnesia because it allows the book to explore the question of who we become with the passing of time. In the case of Alice, she’s become a person she doesn’t like. Ten years have made Alice demanding, a stickler for schedules and making good impressions. The years have also made her unhappy.
At one point, during one of the “new” Alice’s organized events, one of her cohorts calls her a bull terrier, meaning it as a compliment.
“How had I changed so much in ten years?” Alice wonders to herself. “I was more like a Labrador. Anxious to please and overexcited.”
Throughout the book, we wonder whether Alice will regain her memory. If she does, will she go back to being the person she’d become? Throughout the story, Liane Moriarty’s writing is witty and dead-on, when it comes to describing the many characters that populate Alice’s world. I recommend you read it. Just know that there’s a waiting list of 15 people, who want to check it out from the San Diego Public Library.