Wednesday, 4 August 2010

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

FAITHFUL PLACE by Tana French. Hodder and Stoughton hbk. £12.99

This is Tana French’s third novel. Her first two, In the Woods and The Likeness were both cracking good thrillers which kept you turning pages at a fair old lick all the way through to the end. They both suffered a bit, though, from what our family calls an ‘as if’. That’s to say: an element which somehow doesn’t ring true, isn’t plausible, makes you say, in short: As if that could happen! ‘As ifs’ don’t really spoil a thriller too much because quite often you’re carried along in the general excitement and your disbelief has to be suspended for quite a while.

Faithful Place is different. As I was reading it, I was struck by how very well-written it was. I kept thinking: if it wasn’t Tana French’s name on the front cover and if she weren’t so well-known as a crime writer, this book could stand alongside those of other Irish writers whose work is quite rightly praised as being evocative of a community and a time. It’s a bit like a Roddy Doyle novel with a crime at the centre of the story, I said to myself, though French is her own woman and nothing like Doyle in other ways.

The first person narrator, Frank, and his childhood sweetheart Rosie arranged to run away together to England when they were young teenagers. He went to their secret rendezvous. She never turned up. Frank was devastated and has not got over that day. He’s a policeman, he’s been married, had a child and is now separated from his wife. And all these years later, the house in Faithful Place where Frank and Rosie were going to meet is being demolished. Rosie’s suitcase is discovered. How did it get there? And where is Rosie and did Frank have anything to do with her disappearance?

Those are the the basic thrillerish questions but in getting to the answers you are given the lives and relationships of a close-knit family: brothers, sisters, mother, father. You become involved with their friends and neighbours. You are in the life of the street with its friendships and petty squabbles which can spill over so easily into full-scale hostilities which then get passed on through the generations. You’re in the houses and the pubs and the thoughts of a group of people who become completely real to you and whose fates therefore matter. Above all, you’re being told a love story of immense tenderness and beauty along the way. And you’re given a view of a part of Dublin that the author tells us once existed, though it doesn’t quite in the same way any longer. The solving of the crime is the least of it. I really loved this book. To my mind, it’s streets ahead not only of a lot of thrillers but also of a good many regular novels.

PRISONER OF THE INQUISITION by Theresa Breslin Doubleday hbk. £12.99

Theresa Breslin is an enormously versatile novelist. Whispers in the Graveyard won the Carnegie Medal in 1994 and a particular favourite of mine, Divided City, is about the religious divisions in Glasgow seen through the story of two boys, one of whom supports Celtic and the other, Rangers. During the last few years, though, she’s produced historical novels of a very high quality, like Remembrance, The Medici Seal and The Nostradamus Prophecy.

In this book, she turns her attention to the 15th century and Spain. Ferdinand and Isabella are on the throne; Christopher Columbus is sbout to embark on the explorations which will lead him to a New World and the fearsome Spanish Inquisition has its spies everywhere, and wields a great deal of power in the land. Monty Python has a lot to answer for. We snigger at “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition” but in truth they were terrifying, with the power of life and death over many. Because of them, the menace of possible incarceration and torture darkened people’s lives.

The novel begins with someone being burned at the stake. By the end of the book, we’ve learned who that person is. Between those two points, Breslin unfolds a story of romance and danger, of love and betrayal, of Jew and Gentile and also of kings and queens and courtiers and slave ship owners and nuns and noble ladies and soldiers. Even Torquemada himself makes an enormously dramatic appearance. The book is written in short chapters in which we are told two stories. One strand of the narrative is about the beautiful Zarita and the other about the brave and resourceful Saulo. He’s the son of a beggar. She is rich but not all that she seems to be. Their fates are intertwined from the beginning and as we move through the book, the viewpoints alternate. It’s a fast-moving tale, but one that’s full of feeling and emotion. You care for both the hero and the heroine. The villains are truly villainous but Breslin never overdoes the bloodthirsty elements. There is could there not be?..but it’s not there for effect. It’s part of the times the writer is describing.

To set against the excesses of the Inquisition, there’s a lot here about the birth of modern navigation, the advances in science and having Christopher Columbus as a character in the story means that we know that at least one plot strand will end happily. How Breslin leads Zarita and Saulo through to their respective fates makes for a really exciting, fast-moving and very enjoyable novel.

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