Tana French made a lot of noise when her debut novel, In The Woods, hit shelves seven years ago. I finally read it last year and really enjoyed it. So much so that I bought the follow up novel almost right away but have only just read it. One of the joys of owning a Kindle and living with a bibliophile who has covered every available wall space of the flat with books is I’m always spoilt for choice. So that’s part of the reason for the delay in reading it. The other part is the same as its predecessor. The synopsis all but makes me break out in hives.
Cassie Maddox is our narrator here. She was front and centre in the first book too, and as we all know, that book did not end well for her. So we find her bloodied but (only barely) unbowed and now working for Domestic Violence instead of the Murder Squad. Before all of that, Cassie worked in Undercover. When a body identical to Cassie turns up, with ID on her bearing the alias Cassie used in her only undercover op, her ex-boss convinces her that the best way to find out who the dead girl really is and who killed her is to go undercover as her. They concoct a cover story that Lexie Madison (the dead girl) almost died from her wounds, was in a coma for a while, but has made a recovery. So Cassie becomes Lexie again, moves in to her old room with her four close knit housemates, goes back to University and tries to unmask Lexie’s secret past and her killer.
And that is one BIG pill to swallow. The central conceit of this book is just so unworkable and so unbelievable that I couldn’t really get past it. If Lexie lived alone and only attended classes at Uni, then maybe she’d get away with it. But Lexie is part of a very co-dependent unit of housemates and leads seminars as part of her post-graduate degree. Come on now. Also, the book owes a debt to both A Fatal Inversion (Lexie lives in a huge house that one of the housemates inherited and together the five of them try and create a new Utopia with it. Ultimately, it doesn’t end well) and The Secret History (group of friends with an impenetrable relationship which ultimately doesn’t end well). There are many subplots and red herrings along the way which pad out the length of the book, some go nowhere, others end quite unpleasantly. All of them are narrated by Cassie in the most florid language. That girl loves a lyrical simile, that’s for sure.
And yet through all that, I was still wavering on giving this book 4 stars. For all its irritations, it was still somehow compulsively readable. I wanted to know who offed the “real” Lexie Madison. But, as the mystery progresses, Cassie is such a thundering idiot in how she handles things that I could not deal with her. Every time she opened her mouth, I wanted to punch her in it. And then when French finally unravels the mystery, well, here’s the thing: it doesn’t work. To quote an Ani DiFranco lyric “my whole life blew up and now it’s all coming down” and the coming down part in the epilogue, dealing what happens to the friends Lexie lived with, is touching and moving. Cassie’s post-Lexie life is also neatly and pleasingly laid out. But it’s the blowing up part I had issues with. When the truth comes out, for me it made the whole book even more unworkable than it already was. I ended up unable to believe a word of it and had to deduct another star for it. If you still want to read this book after reading this review, then the best thing to do is take your brain out around the halfway mark. It’ll make it much more enjoyable.