(I’ve been lazy and have developed quite a backlog of read books to post about; to avoid anything like what happened with Weekend Agreement from occurring again, I’m going to deviate from my reading order and give freshly read books priority, squeezing in older books – chiefly Daniel Abraham’s wonderful Long Price tetralogy which I am really excited about – as I find the time.)
Like her debut, In the Woods, Tana French’s The Likeness has all the trappings of a crime novel – there is a murder that sets the plot into motion, there are detectives (one of them the novel’s first person narrator) trying to solve the crime by following clues and red herrings, and in the end the killer and the killer’s motive are revealed. Quite an orderly affair, it would seem, with beginning, middle and ending clearly delineated; and on the level of basic plot development The Likeness follows the genre model quite closely and could appear as a standard police procedural – except, of course, that it isn’t.
The irritations start early, when our heroine/narrator glimpses the murder victim for the first time – the corpse looks identical to her down to the last detail, could be her twin sister. Except that she is no relation to her at all, and the likeness between them (a motif that was deemed important enough to give the novel its title, after all) is never really explained, but simply posed as a given. Making such a highly improbable coincidence the foundation to build your novel on, and a crime novel to boot, is of course highly provocative, and judging from reviews on Amazon, Librarything and Goodreads (of which there are quite a few, apparently Tana French is a very popular author) a majority of readers seems to have had problems with that, the spectrum of reactions reaching from mildly peeved to majorly pissed off.
However, the unlikeliness of that likeness is only a problem for as long as one assumes that one is dealing with a police procedural, or, for that matter, any kind of novel with an intent of being realistic (at least, that is, if one understands realism in its simplest form as “mirroring reality as it is”, which really none of the great works of realism does – but that discussion would lead us rather too far astray).
The novel drops all pretentions at simple realism very soon, namely when it turns out that the murder victim not only looked the novel’s protagonist Cassie Palmer but also is named Lexi Madison – which happens to be the name of a persona Cassie took on when she was working as an undercover policewoman, and who she made up in collaboration with her then superior officer Frank – who, in other words, is entirely fictional. And Tana French does milk this constellation for all its metafictional implications – a fictional persona that comes to live as a corpse and is then resurrected when Cassie once again takes up her role in order to find out who killed her.
Which is not to say that The Likeness is a postmodern novel by any stretch of the imagination, but still, there is this tiny metafictional pebble in the reader’s shoe, and it keeps getting stuck in uncomfortable places, never letting its presence be forgotten, a constant irritation. The novel uses this postmodern literary device much as it uses the genre conventions of the police procedural, uses them to ask (but not necessarily to answer) questions centering around dreams and visions coming true, about making them true, and the price we pay for that as well as the price we make others pay. The house that Lexi and her group of friends live in and that sits at the thematic centre of the novel is a dream come true, and its inhabitants, in particular its owner Daniel. are prepared to go to apparently any length to hold on to this dream and everything it stands for. Lexie’s dreams are less lofty, but she turns to have been just as reckless in their pursuit of them, while Frank, Cassie’s former superior and leader of the current investigation, seems to have no scruples to lie and manipulate pretty much everyone to get at the truth of the case, or maybe just for the kicks it gives him.
In the end, Cassie gives up her dream of returning to the Murder Squad in order to be able to be together with her lover Sam, but the novel leaves it open whether that is in any way a better choice, in fact, it hints strongly that she might already be regretting it at the (unspecified) time she narrates the story. The Likeness is a novel about truth and deceit, about deceiving in the name of the truth, about trying to stay true to oneself even in the midst of a web of lies. Everybody lies in this novel, everyody uses and manipulates others, everybody attempts to mold the world and other people to their own likeness.
And in a way, so does the novel, by luring the reader into thinking that it is a normal police procedural, but then doing something quite different, exploring the scenery, the undergrowth and hidden nooks, while still pretending to be on the murderer’s track. It’s all very cleverly done and also beautifully written, and generally well worth reading.