Saturday, October 18, 2014

Review: The Likeness (Dublin Murder Squad, #2) by Tana French

First published:- 2008

Star rating:-

Read in:- March, 2014

"We had worked together seamlessly, she and I. I had drawn her to this house, this life, every bit as neatly and surely as she had drawn me."

Tana French knows how to conjure up the most charmingly creepy characters out of thin air like nobody's business - damaged individuals who go about life like sentient, breathing time bombs about to go off and leave a trail of wreckage consisting of wounded hearts and shattered illusions in the wake of their committed mistakes. Call this tale of blurred identities a flight of her fancy where the basic premise induces one eye-roll after another. Call this The Secret History redux. Call this anything at all. But a beautifully worded commentary on the unpredictability of human behavior will remain as unputdownable under any other name, all criticisms notwithstanding.

A murdered girl with a fake identity made up and used by an undercover cop and her superior years ago, and that same undercover cop destined to unravel the mystery of her murder by pretending to be the dead girl brought to life - who are we kidding here? All of this sounds ridiculous on several levels.

But hey it's Tana French! When she tells you a story, you deferentially suspend disbelief, snuggle into the comfort of your blanket, and read till you hear the first bird gleefully chirping outside your window signalling the onset of yet another morning.

'The Likeness' is a story about people who breach forbidden boundaries in search of the ultimate freedom, refuse to fit into some generic, pre-determined cog in the wheel of society and develop a hermetically sealed, secretive world of their very own where no outside forces are allowed to operate. And it depicts how this painstakingly achieved state of domestic harmony comes apart at the seams when the personal needs of an individual jeopardize the unity of the close-knit group. Thus in the same vein as its predecessor, 'The Likeness' ingeniously utilizes its characters and events to introspect on the fallout of human foibles. But it is important to note here that it is not much of a standalone mystery. It is essential that readers acquaint themselves with the happenings of the first book in the series to grasp the motivations behind our headstrong, kickass female protagonist's actions and the fragile state of her mind. 

It has been 6 months since the spectacularly eerie and depressing events of 'In the Woods' and Operation Vestal blew up in the face of Detectives Rob and Cassie, damaging their relationship beyond any hope of salvation, and leaving them with emotional scars that run much deeper than they care to admit to themselves. Cassie has moved from the Murder Squad to Domestic Violence, Rob is stuck in some other unknown branch of the police department, both no longer on speaking terms. In the midst of this irredeemable mess, a baffling murder case surfaces where the victim resembles Cassie down to her last lock of hair and carries an alias Cassie had used years ago on an undercover drug bust and gotten rid of later on. With no leads to follow and the mystery over the girl's true identity steadily deepening, Cassie decides to revisit her undercover roots (much to the chagrin of her gentle and considerate detective boyfriend Sam O'Neill) by masquerading as the victim, who somehow survived the assault, and returning to the secluded Whitethorn House with its assortment of 4 other inhabitants who are all PhD students of Trinity like Lexie, the murdered girl. Cassie aka Lexie's return under extraordinary circumstances triggers a set of curious events which, in turn, reveal alarming aspects of the lives of the 5 students whose closeness not only hints at something inexplicably disturbing but reveals darker sides of their past lives.

To be fair, this installment of the Dublin Murder Squad series is slightly underwhelming compared to Ms French's brilliant debut. None of the occurrences narrated are as bone-chilling or spooky and an awareness of the wafer thin nature of the logic presented creeps in once in a while. The very Secret History-ish list of ensemble characters (Daniel is Henry, Justin is Francis, Rafe is a cross between Charles and Bunny while Lexie and Abby have shades of Camilla in themselves) evoke a keen sense of déjà vu and the ending disappoints since the emotional aftermath of the crime(s) is much less affecting here compared to the climax of 'In the Woods', which begs the question why I have still rated this 4 stars despite the flaws. 

A good way to answer this question will be to put my finger on French's accurate reconstruction of that feather light feeling of not being tethered to worldly considerations yet and that firm, transient belief in the fact that we'll always remain young and invincible, forever unyielding to civilization's ruthless demands - the wonderful friendships of student life which slip right through our grasp and melt away into oblivion like treacherous mirages as 'real life' hurls one gauntlet after another our way. And it is this thoughtful portrayal of that unavoidable tragedy, of having to grow up and grow out of the optimism of youth, that all of us eventually experience at some point of time which tugs at the heartstrings the most and transforms 'The Likeness' into more of an homage to the intrigue and vigor of youth from just a preternatural murder mystery.

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