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.
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.
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.
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