Tana French’s Investigation of Self and Home

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the book covers for Broken Harbor and The Likeness

In her 2016 essay for the New Yorker on Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, Laura Miller argues that while French presents readers with an extraordinary “portrait of contemporary Ireland wobbling in the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger’s collapse,” in which the locations of the murders and investigations are vivid and salient, “the kernel of her work’s appeal” is not its exploration of Irish society but its exploration of self: “In most crime fiction, the central mystery is: Who is the murderer? In French’s novels, it’s: Who is the detective?” Since late summer, I’ve been reading the novels for the first time (Miller is correct when she says that “anybody who’s read one will very shortly have read them all”; the Brooklyn Public Library cannot get the novels to me fast enough), and what fascinates me is the relationship between self and place—specifically self and home—in them.

Home is the place where the self is cultivated, protected. It protects the self from the threats of the wilderness. And, as Hannah Arendt writes in The Human Condition (1958), home—or, as she specifies, “private property”—provides “the only reliable hiding place from the common public world.” This hiding place is necessary because, she argues, “A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow.” This quotation caught my eye lately (I saw it on Twitter), and I thought at once of the Spain family in Broken Harbor, the fourth novel in French’s series, whose lives are found to be if not shallow, then flimsy, as they venture onto the “property ladder” at the height of the housing bubble and then fail to cope after the bubble bursts and Patrick Spain, the father of the family, loses his job.

At the beginning of the novel, Patrick and his children have been found dead in their home; Jenny, their wife and mother, was found viciously stabbed and is being treated in intensive care for her wounds. The home is a “luxury house” on an unfinished estate in Broken Harbor, renamed Brianstown, that developers abandoned with the 2008 recession, one year after the Spains had moved in and one year before the murders. For the Spains, buying the house was stepping on the first rung of the “property ladder” that they expected to climb on their way to buying a home they truly wanted to live in—perhaps a home in Monkstown, the suburb of Dublin where they grew up. Their Brianstown house is not particularly substantial. One detective jokingly questions whether the thin walls are made of newspapers, and a building inspector finds that “the house is in bits,” with damp, cracked walls and a problem with the plumbing that would require its replacement within a year or two. A multipurpose room at the back of the house is “mostly made of glass,” such that, as the narrator observes, “your neighbors can check out what you’re having for breakfast.” And, disturbingly, though the home has clearly been cared for, as evidenced by its cleanliness and decoration, there are large holes in the walls of many of its rooms.

This house seemingly offers little protection from either the wilderness or the public. The holes, it turns out, were made by Patrick himself, in his attempt to capture the wild animal he heard scratching first in the attic and then in the walls of his home. The record of his efforts that he left on various Internet forums reveals a passage into madness much like that of the narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Jenny, meanwhile, did her best to show her husband that everything was fine. She later explains, “I’d always had the house nice, but I started keeping it totally perfect, like not a crumb anywhere—even if I was wrecked, I cleaned the whole kitchen before I went to bed, so when Pat came down for breakfast it’d be spotless. I’d take the kids picking wildflowers so we’d have something to put in the vases…It was like, Like, everything’s OK, see? We can totally handle this.” Jenny’s performance of normalcy was for the public as well: she says, “As long as people thought we were doing great, we had a chance of getting back up and doing great again.” Little did she know about yet another audience for her performance—a stalker was watching her and her family through the large windows at the back of the house, from a hiding place in an abandoned building on the estate.

As the Spains’ childhood friend Conor Brennan tells detectives, he saw their “investment” in the Brianstown house as a terrible mistake. “Everyone” may have been making similar purchases to get on the “property ladder,” as the Spains argued, but in Conor’s view, “If you just follow along because it’s trendy, then who are you? When the flock changes direction tomorrow, what, you just throw away everything you think and start over, because other people said so? Then what are you, underneath? You’re nothing. You’re no one.” This observation turns out to be tragically accurate. The promise of the “property ladder,” Jenny’s pretense at normalcy, the Spains’ house—all of it is revealed to be flimsy, unable to keep the wilderness out. What Patrick had needed was real help—a therapist, at least—for his very real mental health crisis, rather than his wife’s magical thinking, which she kept up because, as she explains, “If people think you’re some kind of lunatic losers, they start treating you like lunatic losers, and then you’re screwed.”

The Spains’ desire to own a home, like that of so many others in their generation, arises from the legacy of Ireland’s colonization. As the narrator of The Likeness (2008), the second Dublin Murder Squad novel, Cassie Maddox, explains, “This country’s passion for property is built into the blood, a current as huge and primal as desire. Centuries of being turned out on the roadside at a landlord’s whim, helpless, teach your bones that everything in life hangs on owning your home.” The home at the center of this novel, Whitethorn House, is seemingly more substantial than the Brianstown house:

It was a simple house: a wide gray Georgian, three stories, with the sash windows getting smaller as they went up, to give the illusion of even more height. The door was deep blue, paint peeling away in big patches; a flight of stone steps led up to it on either side. Three neat rows of chimney pots, thick drifts of ivy sweeping up the walls almost to the roof. The door had fluted columns and a peacock’s-tail fanlight, but apart from that there was no decoration; just the house.

Cassie, who rents her home, says that if she were to want a house, it would not be one of the “characterless pseudohouses” her friends (and the Spains) were buying, but one like the Whitethorn House, “the real thing, one serious do-not-fuck-with-me house with the strength and pride and grace to outlast everyone who saw it.”

The Whitethorn House is the village’s Big House, the stately though somewhat decrepit remnant of the days when the British dominated the island, ruling over villages like small fiefdoms. Other Big Houses have since been converted to hotels or resorts, their origins half forgotten, but this one was inherited by Daniel March, one of the last members of the Anglo-Irish family who had held the property for generations, and the locals, descendants of guerillas who had fought the British, have not forgotten what Whitethorn House was. Meanwhile, Daniel lives in the house with four young men and women, all of them graduate students at Trinity College, like him. One of the students is found murdered, and Cassie, who uncannily resembles the victim, goes undercover to live with the students and investigate.

When the students are not at school, Cassie finds, they spend their time reading, cooking, playing games, bantering, and lovingly restoring the house. They resemble an intimate family, like one that Cassie, orphaned when she was five, never had. But she discovers that the conditions under which the students have formed this family are unsustainable. Abiding by a rule of “no pasts,” no one is allowed to talk about or acknowledge their childhoods or families of origin in any way. And, though they don’t designate it as such, they also abide by a rule of “no futures”: no one is allowed to marry, have children, or engage in any serious romance with each other. “I suppose some people might call it a state of suspended animation,” Daniel observes. And so, though the Whitethorn House might have been “the real thing.” It could be neither restored nor even maintained by people who could neither acknowledge the past nor cultivate a future accommodating anyone other than themselves.

Strong, proud, and graceful though it might have been, Whitethorn House proves to be unable to outlast even the Spains’ “pseudohouse.” Perhaps it is not so ironic, then, that in a country obsessed with acquiring private property, the home that seems homiest of all is Cassie’s “bedsit”—a cozy studio apartment in the seaside Dublin suburb, Sandymount. Her apartment’s wide window looks out over the rooftops toward the beach, and the studio is furnished with paperback-crammed bookshelves, a turquoise Victorian sofa, a futon with a patchwork duvet, and a wardrobe filled with bookshelves “set at odd, off-kilter heights and packed with a wild variety of objects,” including “chipped enamel saucepans, marbled notebooks, soft jewel-colored sweaters, tumbles of scribbled paper. It was like something in the background of one of those old illustrations of fairy-tale cottages.” This description of the apartment comes from Rob Ryan, the narrator of French’s In the Woods (2007) and Cassie’s partner on the Murder Squad at the time, so the enchanted view of it is his, not hers. With Cassie’s home in mind, though, I wish that the occupants of Whitethorn House could have thought more creatively about what a family could be, or that the Spains could have cared less about what other people think and thought more creatively about how to meet their family’s needs. But by the time such stories land on the pages of a murder mystery, of course, it is already too late.