The Secret Place by Tana Frenchpublished 2014
An evening in early November, the air just starting to flare with little savoury bursts of cold and turf-smoke. The four of them are in their cypress glade, snug in the lovely pocket of free time between classes and dinner. Chris Harper (over the wall and far away, not even a whisper of a thought in any of their minds) has six months, a week and four days left to live.
They are scattered on the grass, lying on their backs, feet dangling from crossed knees. They have hoodies and scarves and Uggs, but they’re holding out a last few days against winter coats. It’s day and night at once: one side of the sky is glowing with pink and orange, the other side is a frail full moon hanging in darkening blue. Wind moves through the cypress branches, a slow soothing hush. Last period was PE, volleyball; their muscles are slack and comfortably tired. They’re talking about homework.
Selena asks, ‘Did you guys do your love sonnets yet?’
commentary: For previous instances of St Patrick’s Day I have done James Joyce’s The Dead (best short story ever written? – and one of my favourite blog pictures.) I have featured John McGahern’s So They May Face the Rising Sun (an all-time favourite book, and – I modestly think – a perfectly chosen picture.) Last year I went with Donal Og, in my view one of the most beautiful love poems ever written, and one that was much tweeted and RT-ed and clicked on when I put it on social media.
The Secret Place is a different kind of book, but still a great one: it’s one of the best crime stories I’ve read over the past few years, and I am now looking forward to reading the rest of French’s oeuvre. A couple of different people have recommended the writer to me – I’m not sure if they specifically said Secret Place, but I liked the idea of the school setting.
There’s a neat double structure. The setting is Dublin, and a pair of posh religious boarding schools next door to each other. New evidence has come to the police regarding a murder the year before: a teenage pupil from the boys’ school was found dead in the grounds of the girls’ school. The crime remained unsolved: so now two cops head into the girls’ school, St Kilda’s, to see what they can come up with. Their chapters alternate with flashbacks to the school events that led up to the murder. The whole of the current-time investigation takes place over one day, and entirely within the school: this is claustrophobic and atmospheric, and helps build a satisfying tension. Someone knows something, and it must be one of 8 girls, who divide neatly into a nice group and a not-so-nice one. The boys’ school is hardly touched on at any point in the book: this is a book about girls.
French’s style is quite literary and airy, and the book is not short, but I found it a complete page-turner – I loved reading about the lives of the girls, and desperately wanted to know what had happened. Their conversations and thoughts and fears, and their social events, and their clothes, seemed authentic to me. Their strong feelings for each other, the importance and magic of friendship, the way they sing together and giggle, the way they cope with their maturing at different rates – all were done lightly but perfectly.
I also loved the novel-aspects, the glancing comments on life – for example when an older, unmarried teacher gives two pupils permission to step out of the Valentine's dance:
Selena, slipping out of the door, understands that she and Chris weren’t the ones who got the permission; that it was a decades-lost boy at some half-forgotten dance, his bright eager face, his laugh.The book reminded me of Donna Tartt, and not just because Tartt’s The Secret History covered similar ground.
It’s a long book, and I know some people found it repetitious, but I was more than happy to get lost in the world of St Kilda’s, and read every word up to the satisfying ending.