Book Recommendation: The Likeness, by Tana French

The Likeness by Tana FrenchI’ve just finished reading an astonishing well-written novel by the Irish writer Tana French. The Likeness is a police crime story set in modern Ireland. Published in 2008, it foreshadows the collapse of the Irish economy in an orgy of property speculation.

Tana French’s novels are set on the edges of Irish society. Her third novel Faithful Place, was located in The Liberties, a marginalized working-class area of Dublin. The Likeness is a murder mystery located in the Wicklow mountains, in the fictional village of Glenskehy “a scatter of houses getting old around a once-a-month church and a pub and a sell-everything shop, small and isolated enough to have been overlooked even by the desperate generation trawling the countryside for homes they can afford.”

Maeve Binchey meets The Big Chill

The tone of the book is part Celtic Deliverance – a insular rural community intent on giving urban sophisticates a hostile reception; part Maeve Binchey with an attitude; part college-friends extending adolescence over lost weekends in the style of The Big Chill, topped off with a dose of Law & Order.

The plot thickens

Before you pick up this book, be warned that it requires a superhuman act of suspending disbelief in the most unlikely of coincidences: a murder victim just happens to be a totally unrelated identical twin of the undercover cop, who assumed the false identity the police constructed for a failed sting operation that went nowhere years before. ‘Nuff said, buy into the premise, it’s worth it.

The Social Construction of Reality

Tana French trained as an actress and I enjoyed the many ways this novel is an extended riff on Method acting. What does others’ belief in our identity depend on? How do they know we are who we say we are? Actions? Memory? A shared set of social experiences? It’s the challenge faced by the salesperson looking to win a deal; the con artist riding the knife-edge of the lie as he bleeds a mark; the adulterer pulling a fast one on a trusting mate; the undercover cop. Friends and lovers place us close to the center of their social world because they believe our identity is what we claim it is. The closer those who betray us, the greater the hurt. French plays with these risks, up to and beyond the point of betrayal by a kiss. It makes the book a real page turner.

Indeed, her premise is that the social construction of reality can be faked, giving the lie to the claim that “…the individual can live in society with some assurance that he really is what he considers himself to be as he plays his routine social roles, in broad daylight and under the eyes of significant others.” (Berger and Luckmann, p.101)

A terrible beauty

Tana French writes lyrical prose that will haunt your dreams. She captures the mood of intimacy among friends who share evenings of poker and Jazz; communal meals and dangling conversations. Her words conjure up relics of ould dacency; college life; boreens; office politics; waifs and strays; angst and anger.


I wished I knew more about Australia. I thought of red earth and sun that hit you like a shout, twisted plants stubborn enough to pull life out of nothing, spaces that could dizzy you, swallow you whole.


…if I had any sense I’d be scared, but all I could feel was every muscle loosening like I was eight years old and cartwheeling myself dizzy on some green hillside, like I could dive a thousand miles through cool blue water without once needing to breathe. I had been right: freedom smelled like ozone and thunderstorms and gunpowder all at once, like snow and bonfires and cut grass, it tasted like seawater and oranges.

Purely by accident, I’m reading Tana French’s novels in reverse order. Next up, her first novel, In the Woods.

I can hardly wait.

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Sounds like a great book. Thanks for the review, Ian.

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