This is my very first Cannonball III Review, and right off the bat, let me make a confession: I didn’t read this. I listened to it instead. I hope you all don’t mind, but my commute is ridiculous and a girl can only listen to so many NPR stories about genocide/plagues/the endtimes before she begins to get depressed. For me, it’s more like National Panicking-quietly-in-my-car Radio, but I digress.
So: literary mystery set in Dublin. Undercover detective Frank Mackey is forced to return to the home he ran away from decades before when a mysterious suitcase is discovered in a neighboring abandoned house. Mackey’s childhood home—where his parents and older brother still live—is located in a cul-de-sac called Faithful Place: a claustrophobic place full of the kinds of characters that can only be played for laughs or tragedy. It’s the kind of little neighborhood where everyone is drunk, unhappy, or desperately oblivious. Anyway, perhaps the most defining choice of Frank’s life was to leave Faithful Place, but the appearance of the suitcase (or, rather, what he discovers subsequently) completely changes how he perceives the events that lead up to him making that choice. As the bodies pile up, Frank is drawn further and further into “the bubbling cauldron of crazy that is the Mackeys at their finest”, and is forced to confront the history he’s been avoiding for so long. And what a history it is. French has an enormous gift for making every character feel alive, their wrinkles well-earned, their traumas and disappointments important in our judgments of who they are and what they have done. The result is that what could easily be a melodramatic story about the way violence taints its victims feels wholly original. There’s a once-beautiful, abusive, alcoholic father figure—that old standby—and even that feels fresh.
One of the most surprising things about the way this novel was put together is that we’re given the answer to the mystery about halfway through, but French actually shows us Frank and the other characters dealing with the fallout of what has happened. It’s a rare thing and a great part of the book’s success that the detective character is so invested in the results of what he’s investigating. The more he learns about who his family was and is, the more difficult his position becomes. There’s an awful sense of the real consequence of violence: that, unlike you or Hercule Poirot, the characters in the story are never going to be able to walk away from what has happened.
For next week, I’m trying to finish Great Expectations*, and I think I’ll end this with a little Pip: “What could I become with these surroundings? How could my character fail to be influenced by them? Is it to be wondered at if my thoughts were dazed, as my eyes were, when I came out into the natural sunlight from the misty yellow rooms?”
*(No, not because Oprah said to.)