Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Secret Place: a very short review

Tana French's The Secret Place has been sitting on my desk for an entire month now, fully-read.

Fully-read, but not fully understood, not fully resolved

Each time I read a Tana French novel, I think to myself: "this is it; her next book cannot possibly be any better than this one."

And then, the next one is better still.

In The Secret Place, French dives into that most complicated of all human complications: the mysterious transition from child to adult. More specifically, from girl to woman. The Secret Place is set in St. Kilda's, an all-girls boarding school, its partner all-boys boarding school just down the way a bit.

There's an exterior plot, of course, involving the Dublin Murder Squad detectives and their efforts to solve the case. And of course, they solve the case, and of course, nothing is really solved at all. This being Tana French and the Dublin Murder Squad, all of that is somehow almost taken for granted.

Meanwhile, the real story is about the girls at the school, as French tries her best to take us into the unfathomably complex mind of a 15-year-old girl:

Selena thinks about that. She hears all the voices from when she was little, soothing, strengthening: Don't be sacred, not of monsters, not of witches, not of big dogs. And now, snapping loud from every direction: Be scared, you have to be scared, ordering like this is your one absolute duty. Be scared you're fat, be scared your boobs are too big and be scared they're too small. Be scared to walk on your own, specially anywhere quiet enough that you can hear yourself think. Be scared of wearing the wrong stuff, saying the wrong thing, having a stupid laugh, being uncool. Be scared of guys not fancying you; be scared of guys, they're animals, rabid can't stop themselves. Be scared of girls, they're all vicious, they'll cut you down before you can cut them. Be scared of strangers. Be scared you won't do well enough in your exams, be scared of getting in trouble. Be scared terrified petrified that everything you are is every kind of wrong. Good girl.

At the same time, in a cool untouched part of her mind, she sees the moon. She feels the shimmer of what it might look like in their own private midnight.

She says, "We're different now. That was the whole point. So we need to be doing something different. Otherwise ..."

She doesn't know how to say what she sees. That moment in the glade sliding away, blurring. Them dulling slowly back to normal.

These tensions are of course common to every fifteen year old; there's nothing new about that.

Yet French manages to capture that knife-edge tightrope walk between terror and desire, and how every moment, every instant, feels like the one thing that will change everything, and how you simultaneously want everything to change, and yet you want nothing to change:

What's been coming to Becca, since this all began, is this: real isn't what they try to tell you. Time isn't. Grown-ups hammer down all these markers, bells schedules coffee-breaks, to stake down time so you'll start believing it's something small and mean, something that scrapes flake after flake off of everything you love till there's nothing left; to stake you down so you won't lift off and fly away, somersaulting through whirlpools of months, skimming through eddies of glittering seconds, pouring handfuls of hours over your upturned face.

She blots the extra ink from around the dot, spits on the tissue and dabs again. The dot throbs, a warm satisfying pain.

These nights in the grove aren't degradable, they can't be flaked away. They'll always be there, if only Becca and the others can find their way back. The four of them backboned by their vow are stronger than anyone's pathetic schedules and bells; in ten years, twenty, fifty, they can slip between the stakes and meet in the glad, on these nights.

What is real, really? What does it mean to be a grown-up, to be an adult, to be responsible? Do you remember what it was like when that concept both mesmerized and terrified you, simultaneously? French certainly does:

The lady detective and the man detective and McKenna all wait, staring at her from behind the sun-patterns slanted across the desk. They're so huge and meaty and hairy, they think they'll just squash her down till her mouth pops open and everything comes gushing out.

Becca looks back at them and feels her flesh stir and transform silently into something new, some nameless substance that comes from high on pungent-forested mountain slopes. Her borders are so hard and bright that these lumpy things are being blinded just by looking at her; she's opaque, she's impermeable, she's a million densities and dimensions more real than any of them. They break against her and roll off like mist.

Reading The Secret Place, I was so drawn in, so engaged, so captivated by the feeling of being fifteen again, being young again, being free and different and somehow not yet even born, that I didn't want the story to end. I didn't want the mystery to be solved. I wanted it to still be a mystery.

None of them say anything. They keep their eyes closed. They lie still and feel the world change shape around them and inside them, feel the boundaries set solid; feel the wild left outside, to prowl perimeters till it thins into something imagined, something forgotten.

Oh, to be young again. Just. Exactly. So.

I want to stake down time, become impermeable, and never dull slowly back to normal.

Don't we all?

As it is after every Tana French novel, I have to rest now. I know it will be several months, at least, before I can begin the next book. To do so any sooner would be, somehow, wrong. I'm not ready; I must wait.

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