No 687 The Likeness by Tana French

the likeness

In Ireland, we have the myth of the changeling – a fairy child who has been secretly left in the place of a human child. The changeling would be identical to the person it was replacing and it was said that the changeling was often an enchanted piece of wood that would grow sick and die. Women in changing states were also in danger of being taken and replaced by a changeling and the last known case of a woman being killed by her husband who feared she was a changeling was in 1865.

Detail of 'The Legend of St Stephen' by Martino di Bartolemeo
Detail of ‘The Legend of St Stephen’ by Martino di Bartolemeo

Tana French, always one to reference the old traditions in Ireland, uses the notion of the changeling to great effect in the second of her Dublin Murder Squad series The Likeness.

How well you like this book will I think, rest almost entirely on how accepting you are of the books premise. Cassie Maddox, who first appeared in In The Woods, is thrust into an undercover operation when the dead body of a girl who looks exactly like Cassie is found. To confuse matters further, the dead girl has been living as Lexie Madison, one of Cassie’s past undercover identities. The chief suspects in the murder of ‘Lexie Madison’ are the four students who have been living with Lexie in a dilapidated mansion in the countryside outside of Dublin, so Frank Mackay, Cassie’s old boss, hatches a plan whereby they will pretend the girl was not killed, but rather left in a coma and when she ‘recovers’, Cassie will pass herself off as Lexie Madison once again to infiltrate the dead girls’ life and try and discover who killed her. Become a changeling as it were.

It’s a Hall of Mirrors style plot for sure, and one that doesn’t really stand up to close scrutiny. It’s often said that we all have a twin, somewhere, but even if you learn someone else’s voice patterns, mannerisms and behaviors, just how likely is it that you will look EXACTLY like them down to freckles, wrinkles and body shape and then pass yourself off to their four closest friends? It’s a testament to Tana French’s skill as a writer that I went with this premise at all, but then The Likeness of more a psychological thriller than a conventional crime novel.

French both defies and adheres to the genre conventions by creating a whodunit within what is essentially an extended examination of human behavior.

Lexi’s friends have inherited an old house and have decided to live in an intellectual idyll – perpetually studying and rebuking the received wisdom that they will leave Uni, get jobs, get married and buy houses. ‘The Likeness’ is a story about people who have decided not to play by societies rules anymore and no longer feel like they have to do what is expected of them. They have breached society’s invisible boundaries and familial expectations to create their own secret, private world where they can live untouched.

Our entire society is based on discontent: people wanting more and more and more, being constantly dissatisfied with their homes, their bodies, their decor, their clothes, everything. Taking it for granted that that’s the whole point of life, never to be satisfied. If you’re perfectly happy with what you’ve got – specially if what you’ve got isn’t all that spectacular – then you’re dangerous. You’re breaking all the rules, you’re undermining the sacred economy, you’re challenging every assumption that society’s built on.

But the book is also about what happens within groups of people, however close, when individual needs impede that secret world and threaten to implode it.  French does a clever job of developing the personalities and relationships between the housemates through the drip feeding of information. Like Cassie, the reader is trying to work out the dynamic of the group from the inside, so much so that you feel a bit like another housemate, being drawn in like Cassie, being won over by the lifestyle until you remember the murder that has occurred and the reason why you are there.

It is these dynamics between the friends that drive the plot forward and what French has done well is to capture the feeling of that transient moment in life when the world is full of possibility and your friends are the pinnacle of that world.

There had been love there. It had looked solid and simple as bread; real. And it felt real to live in, a warm element through which we moved easily and which we breathed in with every breath

She reminds you of a time before bills and mortgages and grown up life invades and youth finally slips away. In some ways the book is reminiscent of The Secret History with its gang of beautiful, intelligent students covering up the bad thing they’ve done and feeling above the rules of the real world. The murder in some ways becomes a symbol of that thing they have been trying to avoid – the need to grow up, to grow out of the youthful pipe dreams and to face the reality within which they are living.

Tana French
Tana French

As a murder mystery it is not as gripping as its predecessor In the Woods nor its sequel  Faithful Place. While it does have moments of suspense, the book goes on slightly too long and the ending, when it comes, doesn’t have the impact to warrant the emotional investment that has gone before. Cassie’s behaviour sometimes feels like it is there to serve the plot as she uncharacteristically withholds information from her colleagues and her questionable choices sometimes feel forced upon her by the author to prolong the intrigue.

Having said that, it is a very enjoyable read that is utterly unputdownable not due to the twists and turns of a typical murder mystery, but because of the insight into of human behaviour and the homage to the foibles and unique strengths of youthful friendship.

Read on: iBooks

Number Read: 60

Number Remaining: 686


Ireland Month The 746

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I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

13 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Your background information of changelings is interesting. I have heard of them, but didn’t really know what they were about.
    As long as the writing is good, I don’t usually have a problem suspending my beliefs when reading a book – it’s fiction, after all! The ‘insights into human behavior’ makes this book sound especially good.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. In Newfoundland where much of our heritage is Irish we also have the notion of the changeling. There is also the idea of the child who has been ‘blasted’. This is a child who has encountered a fairy who may have wisked him away for a time to an unknown place and returned him/her with no recollection of what went on. The child might be changed forever in that he/she is more introspective. To this day, people carry on the superstion of there being a fairy presence in our wilderness. They do this by carrying a piece of bread in thier pocket when they go out on the barrens to supposedly protect them from fairies (don’t ask me what bread has to do with it). Also our fairies are not at all nice they are rather nasty little tricksters who like to lead people away in the fog so that they are perilously lost.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for reviewing this! Yes the premise requires a suspension of disbelief, but French is such a beautiful writer that you just don’t care after a little while. And yes the mystery does drag–but I loved this book so much, again, I didn’t care. I didn’t want to leave Whitethorn House behind.

    It was never so much the mystery that drew me in in the first place. As is the case with all of Tana French’s novels, the beauty in The Likeness lies in the relationships between the characters. They were each so beautifully drawn and each and every one of them broke my heart.

    I definitely recommend reading In the Woods before this one, as so much of Cassie’s emotional state is a direct result of what happened in that book (Rob!!). These two books together are my favorite books of all time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I absolutely agree about the writing, she captures those relationships so well. I read In The Woods but it was quite a few years ago so I almost wish I’d reread it before starting The Likeness! Thanks for commenting.


  4. I think this was my first Tana French book and I read In The Woods a couple of years after it. I did like both books but really enjoyed one of her more recent ones, The Secret Place even more.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I finally bought ‘In the Woods’ last month and I can’t wait to read it. Also, I had no idea Tana French looked like that, but it is great to see the person behind the name, and the book, only to remind us that they are fellow human beings 🙂


  6. I couldn’t really get into The Likeness, even though I just about accepted the premise, but because it was too much like The Secret History. I think Tana mentioned how her love of that book had influenced this one, and I’m afraid I just kept thinking at every turn how inferior to Donna Tartt it was!

    Liked by 1 person

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