I am on the Tana French soap box. Like standing on the corner preaching at people soap box – French is fabulous. I adore her writing and her style. Broken Harbour is exceptional (can I just say how happy I am to be able to spell harbour properly and not drop the U). It is my favourite of the five. It is exactly what I am looking for in a book. That being said, I would not necessarily recommend her books to people who are fans of traditional crime fiction. She’s not about the plot twist. In fact, her perpetrators are often fairly easy to figure out. If you don’t know early on, when the reveal happens, it just makes sense. But that writing choice serves the books rather than hinders them. And this sentiment is exceptionally true in Broken Harbour. By not concentrating on the who-dun-it part, you get to focus on the why they did it part. As with French’s other novels, this is a psychological review more than a mystery. Madness is a central focus in the novel. Madness brought on by mental illness, genetics, and social pressure.
As always, French brings back a character from one of her previous novels. In BH we’re reintroduced to Scorcher Kennedy, whom we previously met in a small role in Faithful Place. People always says you don’t have to read her books in order. That they aren’t a real series. And that’s kind of true. The characters change from book to book. But the central character in one book is typically part of one of the previous books. Technically, you don’t need to read Faithful Place to read this novel, but I think Kennedy’s character makes more sense if you understand how his career was impacted by the events of that story (just read things in order. They’re written that way for a reason.) In that novel, Kennedy was introduced to us by the cantankerous Frank as kind of a socially-acceptable, stick in the mud, ass who was an excellent, driven cop. And honestly, I don’t think Frank was wrong. Scorcher is going to be one of those characters that people will relate to or they won’t. It all depends on the way you see the world – which is kind of the entire pint of the book. Outwardly, Kennedy is exactly what he is supposed to be. Even inwardly, this is what he is. If he starts to stray from the socially acceptable lifestyle, he is so critical of himself. It is crucial to Scorcher that he embodies the exceptionally normal and successful, especially since he was basically fucked over by the events of Faithful Place. Now he’s trying to get back on track and prove he’s still what everyone thought he was before. To become the image of normalcy again. To prove that he is the guy he’s always shown everyone.
Scorcher’s desire to be normal is driven by his childhood. A mother who struggled with a mental illness in a time when you did not discuss such things publically. It was better for the neighbours to think that their father beat their mother, than to let people know she was struggling. Struggling so much that it eventually drove her to commit suicide on a family vacation. She killed herself in the only place where Kennedy ever felt happy. Where his mother was happy. Where the family didn’t struggle. Where everything was allowed to just relax and breathe for a little while before they returned to faking it. Until the night she picked up the youngest sister and walks into the water. Dina survives, found burrowed in the reeds aside the water, but she’s never the same. To her family, she was a normal, imaginative little girl before the incident. Afterwards, she started acting differently. At first, her responses could probably be attributed to a child suffering from PTSD, but there’s more to it than that. There always was. Dina knew it and I think their mother did to. I think she saw herself in Dina. Saw that Dina was starting to suffer from the same ailments as her. After the suicide, Dina can no longer hide her auditory hallucinations.
As an adult, Scorcher knows that his sister is prone to spikes in her illness when memories are triggered. So, when he finds out his latest case, a sensational triple murder, is going to send him back to Broken Harbour (now Brianstown), he knows his sister is going to become a problem. Dina is tormented by her hallucinations. She hears popcorn when the toilet flushes. Here’s water running in dry rooms. The more stress she feels, the worse her symptoms. And she refuses to take medication or get treatment. Sure, they could force her, but that never works does it. So instead, Scorcher is tasked with dealing with his sister and this case at the same.
Here’s my one complaint about French’s books – all of these cops who work on the same squad keep ending up involved in cases that occur in locations where they were previously a victim. It worked well in the previous three books because the ties were easy to explain (or were new in In the Woods). But in Broken Harbour, it feels a little re-hashy of the In the Woods premise. No one else knows that this thing happened in their pasts. No one will be able to tie it together unless the detective says something. Neither of them does, even though they are nearly destroyed because of these cases. But this book drew me in so much, and I had enough distance from book 1, that I’m going to forgive the repetition.
In diametric opposition to Kennedy is Richie – his rookie partner. A newbie who comes from an entirely different lifestyle than Scorcher. Who has completely different ideas of what is successful. Who sees things differently. Who sees different paths for options. Their differences make them amazing partners. It links them together in a way Kennedy has never felt with another partner. This is what he’s been looking for. But he’s been exposed to so many cases that he’s tunnel visioned into believing only a few possible outcomes are possible. He tells Richie that, typically, victims of crime invite the criminals into their lives. Maybe not intentionally, but they almost always have a known link to the perpetrators. Something they’ve done has allowed this to happen. It’s not a statement of blame. It’s a statement of resolution. It gets them to answers. The trouble is that Kennedy gets so stuck in this belief that he can’t see the other possible outcomes. And when Richie pushes him to look at other possibilities, Kennedy simply placates him. Kennedy’s certainty drives Richie to hide evidence. Evidence that is eventually corrupted but also is the thing that breaks the case. Evidence that makes Kennedy break his career-long commitment to honest police work. Evidence that ends up ending Richie’s future as a detective. The inability to bend away from what is seen as normal ends up breaking two careers.
But the best example of this desperation to fit in is embodied by the Spains. They are literally destroyed by their need to be normal. Their uncontrollable desire to be exactly what everyone else is. From the time they were teenagers, all Jenny and Pat wanted was to grow up and get married and have kids and a house and good jobs and everything they’re supposed to have. They have 100% bought into the social prescribed description of happiness. They don’t understand people who don’t want that. Fiona and Conner are happy with other things. They don’t need the money and the house. They simply need to find comfort in their passion. It matters more to them that they get to do things they love than that they appear to have the things people want. But for the Spains, having all the trappings is the only thing that matters.
The housing development where the Spain family is decimated perfectly captures the madness of social conformity. French expertly takes mass appeal and showing how that will break you. I don’t live in Ireland, so I don’t know exactly what their boom and bust was about, but I know what it looks like here. Block after block of identical houses built too fast and too crappy and too samesy-samesy in order to give people what they ‘want’. Communities where you have to get approval from someone else to change the colour of your fence, even though you own it. But who cares because you own this big house and it looks like you’ve succeeded. This was how the community of Brianstown started. A place for starters. For people who want to look like they have it all, even if they can’t really afford it. But now, the new homes are half completed or empty. Missing roofs and windows and doors. The few that are occupied are scattered around the complex. They live in houses so close together that you can’t walk between them, but yet they remain unbelievably alone. The blistering need to appear a certain way drives their loneliness inside. The troubles hide behind thin walls and massive windows. Jenny and Pat have everything they’re supposed to. Until they don’t. When they start to lose the material items, they start to lose their grip on what makes them people. Without their SUV and their house and their things, they have nothing. There’s no personality hidden under their pretty clothes.
Have you ever read the Hyperbole and a Half blog? She stopped writing it a couple years ago, but it was always good for a laugh. There’s one specific post about the sneaky hate spiral. You know when little, non-sequential, unimportant annoying things keep happening and suddenly, without any real warning, you realize you’re a bubbling cauldron of rage. I think that concept can be applied pretty perfectly to what happens to the Spains, especially Pat. But instead of rage, the spiral takes them slowly into insanity.
Pat’s obsession with the animal in the attic is a manifestation of his emptiness. He has nothing else to hold onto. Instead of investing in his family and embracing the time he has with them, he clings to his need to protect them. We see the progression of his madness through his posts on message boards. He goes from totally coherent and reasonable to unable to control his emotions. He’s certainly lost his grip on reality. Situational depression maybe? We never know. Because he just becomes they will never talk to anyone about anything that isn’t positive-positive-positive. Jenny doesn’t allow negative attitudes in the house, even if they are valid viewpoints. Pat becomes more and more entangled in the need to find the animal in their house. And animal no one else has seen. But he convinces their kids it’s there. Instills fear in them in order to validate his beliefs. His actions prompt Jenny into protection mode. But she’s not protecting her family from an animal. She’s protecting them from shame and embarassment. She’s protecting their reputation – not their family. The shame of people thinking they’ve failed is worse than death. Literally, this is how Jenny feels.
Pat and Jenny retreat behind the walls of their house instead of telling anyone they need help. Instead of reaching out to their siblings or friends, they close off as individuals. They don’t even rely on each other as a couple. It’s Jenny and it’s Pat. Not the Jenny and Pat everyone has always known them to be. Their mass appeal life is the source of their isolation. It leads to the end of their family. The end of Richie’s career. The end of Scorcher’s self-image. The dangers of conformity are present through the entire book. The characters that don’t fit are seen as outsiders, even though are often the ones with the clearest view of what is actually happening. French forces her readers to confront what they believe. To see if they’re really someone or if they’re just doing what they’re supposed to. She does what she always does to make her reader uncomfortable – she forces into introspection.