Monthly Archives: September 2014

Tana French – “The Secret Place”

Joyce: I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about… where you’re coming from, how to relate to you… and I’ve come to a very simple conclusion: I don’t get it.
Buffy: I’m inscrutable, huh?
Joyce: You’re sixteen. I think there’s a, a biological imperative whereby I can’t understand you because I’m not sixteen.
Buffy: Do you ever wish you could be sixteen again?
Joyce: Oh, that’s a frightful notion. (exhales) Go through all that again? Not even if it helped me understand you.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 1, Episode 3, “Witch”

There are actually two secret places within the novel, and it’s anyone’s guess precisely which one is indicated by the title; it could be either, or both. One is a place for secrets: a bulletin board where students at the prestigious St. Kilda’s School can anonymously share their private thoughts and feelings. The other is a specific, hidden place, a secluded cypress grove on the school grounds, that four students regard as particularly theirs, the one spot where they can find much-needed privacy away from the prying eyes of teachers and peers.

The two are inextricably linked by the death of Chris Harper, a handsome and popular student from the all-boys school a street or so away, who was found murdered on St. Kilda’s grounds at the end of the previous school year – in the cypress grove, to be precise. As devastating and earth-shattering as his death was for everyone involved, the investigation stalled for lack of evidence and was quietly set aside for over a year, until the card appeared on the school message board. Plain and white, a picture of Chris Harper and five words: I know who killed him.

Holly Mackey (whose detective father Frank appeared in French’s earlier novels Faithful Place and The Likeness) is the first to discover the card, and she brings it straight to Detective Stephen Moran; they met several years ago, when Holly was a witness in a murder investigation. Moran works cold cases, not murders, but he’s been waiting for his ticket onto the Murder Squad, to join the elite, and so he attaches himself to Antoinette Conway, the lead detective in the initial investigation, as she heads back to St. Kilda’s to re-open the case. She lets him tag along because he has an “in” with Holly, since any kind of rapport with the students was the one thing she lacked the first time, and Moran is determined to make the most of this opportunity.

From there, Conway and Moran tackle the nearly impossible task of convincing a group of teenage girls to part with their closely guarded secrets, while also facing down a headmistress closely guarding her school’s reputation, parents fighting tooth and nail to protect their offspring, and colleagues and superiors ready to snatch the case away from them. It’s a very long day, working against the clock, and it’s all they have, their one chance to get things right.

Moran narrates the investigation side of the novel, his timeline unfolding over the course of a single day; for him, time is racing. The rest is a series of chronological flashbacks leading up to the murder, spanning the better part of a school year: a macabre countdown to Chris Harper’s death. To complicate things further, Holly and her three best friends (Julia, Selena and Rebecca) are at the heart of both timelines, along with the four members of another clique at the school. For the girls, time moves slowly, creeping forward to an unknown destination, with all the breathless impatience and anticipation of adolescence, completely unaware of the tragedy they’re hurtling towards. Both timelines spins out gradually, doling out information drop by drop, as they move forwards and backwards simultaneously towards Chris Harper’s death.

For all its superficial prominence within the pages, the murder investigation isn’t really the heart of the novel; instead, it’s the story of four girls, trying to navigate and survive adolescence, while the two detectives try to figure out how, when, and above all why that journey went awry. They’re at an age where everything matters, and matters intensely; it’s easy to forget the energy, the drama, the confusion, and above all, the secrecy. Moran and Conway certainly have no desire to revisit that time of their lives, and their journey into the minds and lives of the girls is fraught with complications. The Secret Place message board was deliberately created by St. Kilda’s as a safety valve on the pressure cooker that is a lot of teenagers in one place, thought to be a better alternative to an anonymous website, and one that the school could monitor, at least to some extent. But these are smart girls, and there’s a good deal more seething and bubbling beneath the surface than any adult is willing to imagine, or remember.

Aside from the masterful construction of the larger plot, a lot of the novel’s intensity and power comes from French’s attention to detail, to the little things woven in and out of the bigger picture, where even the most inconsequential occurrences are taken note of: the universal appeal of new school supplies, lovely onomatopoeia of birdsong in the heat of late summer, a bee landing on Detective Conway’s blouse. And throughout, there’s a song that Holly can never quite catch, only hearing snippets of it, that haunts and puzzles her throughout, always slightly out of earshot.

The Secret Place is an absorbing novel, enfolding you in its pages and never letting go until the bitter end; but it’s not a comforting embrace, not at all. You read with a sort of breathless intensity as the tension builds, just waiting for the proverbial closets to spring open and for all the skeletons to start spilling out: you know something dreadful is coming, something that will hurt a lot of people, very badly, but you don’t know precisely what, or when French is going to spring it on you. In the end, there are still so many unanswered questions and uncertain futures for all of the characters, even with the murder solved. It’s what French does so beautifully: pain, secrets, and things that would be simpler, easier if left uncovered … but not better. It’s gorgeous, but achingly so.



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The Art of Neil Gaiman – reviewed by Hunter Coleman

Neil Gaiman, the master of imagination, has been pleasing his readers for over two decades, and at last there is a book devoted entirely to the man himself, detailing his journey from journalist to comic artist to cult novelist.

Ms. Campbell, the daughter of Eddie Campbell, a veteran graphic novelist, has known Gaiman since childhood, and as such has wide access to Gaiman and his correspondents. (Gaiman’s The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish was dedicated to the ten-year-old Hayley Campbell).

Although heavily illustrated throughout, The Art of Neil Gaiman is more about the art of writing than about visual arts per se. Gaiman is, after all, a writer, not an illustrator. And written he has, from some of the most beloved graphic novels (The Sandman, Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader (the last Batman story)), to novels (The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Coraline) to blockbuster movies (Beowulf starring Angelina Jolie), to a biography on Duran Duran (or should that be rockagraphy?).

This is not a straight biography (his wife and children get only a passing mention, and then only to show how they affect the work), and with the possible exception of the first part, Preludes, should not be read as one. The Art of Neil Gaiman is, instead, full of never-before-seen notes, cartoons, personal photographs and drawings from Neil’s own collection. Each project is examined in turn, from genesis to fruition in the book that is divided among Gaiman’s three most influential mediums: comics, novels and screenplays.

The early chapters share episodes in the life of the writer, such as his embarrassment on having to take a sandwich with him to the library (his parents did not want the young boy spending his entire day reading books without food in his stomach) where he tells how he would reluctantly carry around the sandwich while exploring the stacks in the morning before taking his lunch break outside on a bench (all while reading, of course) before happily throwing the bag away and at last being able to return to the library, sans sandwich.

Later, the book does spend many pages detailing the inception of Gaiman’s magnum opus, The Sandman, which he worked on for seven years, and which became one of the most famous graphic novels in history, and justifiably so.

Lavishly illustrated, The Art of Neil Gaiman is the fully authorized account of the life and work of one of the world’s great storytellers, and is definitely a must-have for any fan.

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Sue Miller – “The Arsonist”

“Kids don’t need magic kisses. Only adults are not happy.”

– Sue Miller, The Arsonist


Reid: Statistically 94 per cent of all serial arsonists are male, 75 per cent are white and few, if any, are ever caught.

Prentiss: Few? You don’t have a percentage?

Reid: 16 per cent. And those 16 per cent set thirty-plus fires before they’re ever apprehended.

Criminal Minds, “Ashes to Dust”, Season 2, Episode 19


“We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out.”

– Tennessee Williams, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore

Two things happen simultaneously as The Arsonist opens: Frankie Rowley arrives at her parents’ home, in the small town of Pomeroy, New Hampshire, and the fires begin. Even without the latter, Sue Miller’s latest would be a novel of dislocation and upheaval; as it stands, the escalation of the titular arsonist mirrors (and heightens) the private turmoil in the lives of the characters until the two narrative strands combine, spilling over and entwining until they become impossible to separate.

Frankie finds herself at a crossroads, caught in a curious limbo of indecision; after fifteen years in Africa, working for an NGO, she finds her life suddenly unsatisfying, and isn’t sure if or when she’s going back. At the same time, she has no idea what she does want, and she is terrified of the blankness that rises up whenever she contemplates her suddenly uncertain future. She spends most of the novel living as Schrodinger’s cat, behaving as if both of her options (to stay or to go back) are equally true at the same time – an untenable position. Her parents, Sylvia and Alfie, are in the midst of their own transition, having recently retired to what used to be their summer home, and the move is an adjustment for both of them in more ways than one. Sylvia in particular is trying to craft a new role in life, and feel at home in a place she loved primarily because it was not her home; she’s thoroughly tired of being the one in charge of their joint lives, the nag, the caretaker, the responsible one … a resentment that only builds as Alfie starts showing early signs of Alzheimer’s. Even Bud Jacobs, editor and proprietor of the local newspaper (with whom Frankie begins a relationship as the summer progresses) becomes caught up in the tension of uncertainty, second-guessing his decision to settle in Pomeroy for good, having abandoned a successful career as a big-city journalist.

As a result, the novel is an exploration into the necessary components for … I’m not even sure how to describe it. It isn’t happiness, per se, because there is no such thing as a happily ever after, at least not a permanent one. Perfect happiness is a transitory phenomenon within the world of the book, of which all of the characters in the book are deeply aware. Instead, they are groping blindly after … I suppose contentment would be the best way to describe it. While the precise requirements vary from person to person, they’re all looking to build a satisfactory life – imperfect, to be sure, but better than all of the possible alternatives. In the end, they’re trying to place themselves in a better position than they were in before: one with more potential for happiness.

Because of the arsonist, because of Alfie’s decline, because Frankie has come home to (possibly) stay, exploration of emotions is at the heart of the novel: specifically the hidden, secret ones that we (almost) never admit to aloud, or even in our own minds. These are the thoughts and feelings that we quash quickly and silently and guiltily as soon as we become conscious of them. The bad emotions, that everyone has, and yet we’re all ashamed of: pleasure and excitement sparked by something objectively terrible that benefits us, but that negatively impacts others around us; secret satisfaction at being proved right, even when the right conclusion has devastating results; resentment at an additional burden being placed on our shoulders, even when the source of that burden is in no way to blame. These thoughts are natural, human, bubbling up in the hearts and minds of even the kindest and nicest of us. And yet, they invariably provoke reactions of shame and guilt. We berate ourselves for them, thinking that if we were better, we simply wouldn’t think or feel these shameful, guilty, horrible things. Even as we do, the novel assures us that these thoughts are both perfectly natural and not uncommon. Singularity is the most damning aspect of these thoughts, when we feel that everyone else around us (so much better and kinder and stronger than we ourselves could ever hope to be) is immune to such petty feelings.

The events of The Arsonist unfold during the summer of 1998 (news of the Lewinsky scandal is a ubiquitous topic of conversation before it is displaced by talk of the fires; Frankie is deeply affected by the American embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania on August 7), and yet for all the details tying the novel to a precise date, it’s peculiarly timeless, far more firmly anchored in place rather than time. Miller looks beyond the span of the fires, both forward and backwards. It’s necessary to study the past of the characters and the town of Pomeroy, to understand how everyone and everything arrived at this moment in time. We also get tantalizing glimpses of what will be, after the summer is over and the fires end.

So much of this novel rings true, from the larger currents to the tiniest detail, from the universal truth that putting on fresh eye make-up always improves one’s outlook on life, to the inescapable urge to seek a “grown-up” to talk to in time of crisis, no matter how old we grow. The title is fundamentally misleading, however, because the arsonist is not what matters. Although his actions form a compelling backdrop, and create conflict in Pomeroy, his identity is ultimately irrelevant; he is a catalyst, nothing more. The focus is on the town’s reaction to his crimes, and on Frankie and Sylvia, Bud and Alfie, zeroing in on a mother and daughter and the men in their lives, all of whom find themselves at a turning point, voluntarily or otherwise. You’re initially drawn in because of the idea of crime and mystery; instead, the hypnotizing human interaction is what keeps you spellbound.


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