Broken Harbor by Tana French or suburbs in the sand

Broken Harbor
Recommended for: psychological mystery fans everywhere!
Read from November 24 to December 10, 2012
★   ★   ★   ★

I’m going to do two things I almost never do.
First, I’ll tell you how to read: Sit down and pay attention to this book. Read in large, uninterrupted blocks of time. Trust me; you will better be able to appreciate French’s character evolution (or dissolution) and the many layers of the plot become all the more shocking when they’ve had the chance to properly build.

The second thing I rarely do: spoiler part of my review. For my memory and discussion’s sake, I must be specific.

Once again, French impresses. This time she pulls in interesting plotting followed by astonishing character development. Yet it is unsettling enough that I don’t know if it will get a second read. That’s okay–parts of it are still etched in my mind.

Scorcher Kennedy is one of the stars of the Murder Squad. Although he’s recently come off a case that’s left him with a figurative black eye (one of the earlier books, and for the life of me, I can’t remember why), he gets a chance to shine when an entire suburban family is found murdered and he catches the case. His new partner is a rookie early in his Murder career, and somewhat unusually, becomes second when Kennedy vouches for him. Like all French’s narrators, Kennedy has a troubled past, coincidentally tied to the same area as the murder case.

Perhaps that is part of French’s overall message–the people drawn to solving horrific crime are as troubled as the victims and criminals. This time, however, French challenges herself with a narrator and protagonist who is not altogether likeable, and whose strength is his meticulous attention to detail. He delineates his world into black and white, and his neat organization constrains her ability to vividly flavor a world. Still, she sneaks in a bit of vivid imagery here and there:

“Only teenagers think boring is bad. Adults, grown men and women who’ve been around the block a few times, know that boring is a gift straight from God.” (p.11)

“It made her shoulder jump, the sudden feel of our fingers probing deep into their lives.” (p.251).

“I could smell the hospital off her, disinfected and polluting.”

“There was a moment of silence that could have sliced skin.”

First mild spoiler:
Here’s where French kicked my ass: almost every single character in this story is concealing something. ‘That’s not unusual,’ you think. Her genius: virtually all of them melt under pressure. By avoiding rigid definitions of ‘good/bad’ and ‘sane/insane,’ the reader should start to understand the barrier is permeable for all of us, given the right set of circumstances. While at first I thought Kennedy’s mentally ill sister a plot crutch, it turns out she is just the extreme end of the observable scale.

Second major spoiler. Now, I’m serious. Don’t read the next part unless you want to talk specifics.

The first clue things are starting to go bad–well, the first blaze orange road sign–is when he decides against confiding in Richie. He almost shares his helplessness coping with Dina–he’s so close, he can envision what intimacy may look like. But he pulls back and loses the moment; it was clear it would become a pivot point, but not quite how. It becomes a motif; Kennedy allowing himself to relax into the give-and-take of an equal, discovering a thoughtful person that might be perfect for a long-term working partnership.

Kennedy is so certain his worldview is right, but his certainty is built on sand. It’s the supposition that if bad things happen, usually people deserve them in some fashion. French demonstrates the weakness of his belief time and time again, but then allows Kennedy the opportunity to pontificate to Richie as he orients him to the job. He even repeats some of these thoughts to himself, affirming what he enjoys about his career.
“This is the gift we offer them, people who loved the victims: rest… I understand how immense that is, and how priceless.” (p.250)

His confrontation with Dina was utterly heartbreaking, when he’s begging for an explanation for her madness, and for her interpretation of Broken Harbor. I wanted to cheer and cry at the same time. Her moment of frustrated self-awareness was so perfect:
“You keep trying to organize me, file me away all neat and make sense, like I’m one of your cases… There isn’t any why. That’s what I mean, trying to organize me. I’m not crazy because anything. I just am.” Her voice was clear, steady, matter-of-fact, and she was looking at me straight on, with something that could almost have been compassion” (p.287).

French does get the chance to demonstrate her descriptive prowess when she describes the drowning and the fisherman discovering the mom’s dress. It resonates all the more for the restrained writing earlier. Her imagery is ominous, nothing wasted, entirely evocative. The sinister atmosphere carries over into the squad room:The moment I said Broken Harbor to O’Kelly, every faded scar in my mind had lit up like a beacon. I had walked the glittering lines of those scars, obedient as a farm animal, from that moment straight to this one.”

I also admire French’s use of internet forums as a way of demonstrating Pat’s gradual unhinging. When he first posts, can anyone doubt his sincerity? As his situation becomes more and more ridiculous, with more caveats and exceptions, does it not conjure other posters encountered on the internet and the gradual way subtext is revealed? I thought it quite clever; there is no need for Kennedy to say, “look, he’s crazy,” when we can read, draw similar conclusions.

Ultimately, French is an amazing writer, even when I don’t like the ending. Note–never be a character in a French book. And read everything she writes.

Four splattered stars.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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4 Responses to Broken Harbor by Tana French or suburbs in the sand

  1. Busty Book Bimbo says:

    I still haven’t gotten to French. Have you read all of hers now? Which one is your favorite?

  2. thebookgator says:

    That’s her genius–they are all so different, so it depends on what part you like. 1st if you can tolerate ambiguity and like historical back-tracking. 2nd if you can tolerate a somewhat implausible premise but awesome character-building in a bottle setting. 3rd is somewhat predictable mystery but fascinating character building in a more-or-less traditional investigation. 4th is more traditional and blood-splattered with a solid mystery.

  3. Busty Book Bimbo says:

    So in other words, I should read them all. 😉

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