Talk about books

A fortnightly newsletter by Art Kavanagh about things I’ve read

No. 7; 15 February 2021

Tana French, The Likeness

A novel of doubles, reflections, parallels — and deceptive resemblance

Cassie Maddox is a major character in Tana French’s first novel, In the Woods, but she’s right at the centre of the second, which she narrates. The Likeness is a big, long (nearly 700 pages), complex novel, with several equally important themes. There are intriguing patterns of repetition and resemblance both within he novel itself and between it and its prececessor. I’m probably not going to be able to do them all justice but I hope I can at least point you in the right direction.

The Likeness starts with the discovery of the body of a woman who has been going by the name Lexie Madison. She has died from a stab wound in the chest. The victim looks just like Cassie and the name she’s been using is one that Cassie made up a few years earlier, when she was going undercover to investigate drug dealing in and around UCD. That investigation ended with Cassie being stabbed, also in the chest. Cassie survived, though, and transferred from undercover to the Murder squad. By the time that Lexie died, Cassie had transferred out of Murder again to Domestic Violence, following the botched investigation in In the Woods.

It turns out that the dead woman had been mistaken for Lexie by a student acquaintance and, discovering that the identity had seemingly been abandoned, she assumed it and enrolled as a graduate student in Trinity. There she became involved with a group of four other graduate students sharing an old, big house in County Wicklow. Cassie is persuaded to go back under cover, resume Lexie’s identity, and find out how she died. The detectives running the investigation will tell the four housemates that Lexie survived, barely, and may yet make a recovery. In the meantime, Cassie will learn how to be the version of Lexie that they knew. With luck, she will pass long enough to find out how she came to be killed, and by whom.

The Likeness is the first of Tana French’s novels that I read, and I was drawn to it by this setup: the doppelgänger who takes on one’s own former false identity. I’ve long been fascinated by the idea of discarded identities floating about and landing on the wrong people; rather as Roger Thornhill appeared to be George Kaplan, I suppose, though this analogy has only just occurred to me. But there’s a lot more to The Likeness than its setup, compelling though that is. As the story progresses, Cassie finds herself being drawn in at least two different directions. On the one hand, she has a sense that the dead Lexie wants something from her, and she in turn wants to be able to provide it:

“Whatever it is you want,” I said softly into the dark cottage. “I’m here. You’ve got me.”
There was a tiny shift in the air around me, subtler than a breath; secretive; pleased. (Hodder paperback, 2013, p. 211)

And, at the end, when the details of how Lexie met her death have been (more or less) uncovered, Cassie finds that her double doesn’t seem to want anything more from her:

After that, I hoped I’d dream about Lexie, just every now and then. She’s fading from the others’ minds, day by day; soon she’ll be gone for good, she’ll be only bluebells and a hawthorn tree, in a ruined cottage where no one goes. I figured I owed her my dreams. But she never came. Whatever it was she wanted from me, I must have brought it to her, somewhere along the way. (p. 692)

What Cassie felt she “owed” Lexie is not easy to reconcile with what she wants for herself. The tension is between preserving and defending Whitethorn House and reducing it to rubble, punishing and (more or less) exposing her killer. Lexie had been on the point of destroying the household-commune, not as an end in itself but as the side effect of her resumed flight, this time with an embryo gestating inside her.

Would she have been satisfied with the naming of Daniel as her murderer? Cassie is sure that it was really Justin who stabbed her: that it was he, not Daniel, whom Rafe was yelling at when he learned that Lexie had been pregnant (p. 636). Yet Daniel declared that he was the killer, before putting Cassie in a position where the only thing she could do was shoot him dead.

Part of what Cassie wanted from Whitethorn House was somewhere she could belong, and something resembling a family. She was orphaned at 5 years old, when both her parents were killed in a carcrash. When she first moved into the house, she noticed something she wasn’t prepared for:

Frank and Sam hadn’t told me, maybe they’d never seen, the most important thing about these four: just how close they were. The phone videos hadn’t been able to catch the power of it, any more than they’d caught the house. It was like a shimmer in the air between them, like glittering web-fine threads tossed back and forth and in and out until every movement or word reverberated through the whole group: Rafe passing Abby her smokes almost before she glanced around for them, Daniel turning with his hands out ready to take the steak dish in the same second that Justin brought it through the door, sentences flicked into each other like Snap cards with never a fraction of a pause. Rob and I used to be like that: seamless. (pp. 167–8)

The parallel with her and Rob is more apt than she may realize. The relationship between the four has by this time been all but destroyed by Lexie’s stabbing but they continue to behave towards each other as Cassie has described, as if by habit. In much the same way, in the first book, the detectives’ interrogation of Katy’s killer is an exercise in seamless cooperation, though Rob can hardly any longer bear to look at Cassie.

The doubling, the reflections and parallels operate between characters and situations within The Likeness itself, but also between the two books. Cassie has already noticed that the housemates’ closeness resembles the way she used to be with Rob. It’s worth noting, though, that the relationship may not have been as unique as they had believed: when she and Frank are playing their mind-games on Abby, Rafe and Justin, she says:

We were good together, me and Frank; we were on the same page. We were working together as smoothly as Abby and me making breakfast, as smooth as a pair of professional torturers. (p. 571)

It isn’t just with her fellow investigator that she has this connection, though. Moments before she shoots Daniel dead, they meet each other’s eyes:

Then he turned to me and his head moved, a tiny private nod I’d seen a thousand times before. Me and Rob, eyes catching across a door that wouldn’t open, an interview-room table and that almost invisible nod passing between us: Go. (p. 641)

Immediately following this, Daniel raises and fires his gun, and Cassie kills him. (“He had to know: that I only had a head shot, that I couldn’t miss.” p. 640) So maybe the seamless unity is a function of the role — interrogator, torturer, potential killer — and not, after all, of the personal connection. Perhaps mistaking the harmonious acting in concert for something deeply individual and unique is the catastrophic error made by Rob and Cassie in the first book and by Daniel and his coterie in the second.

One parallel between the two books that surprised me is that, at a low point, Cassie phones Rob’s mobile. He answers but she doesn’t speak (p. 545). This echoes the moment in the earlier book where a drunken Rob phones Cassie late at night, to say he loves her and that he’s sorry. She tells Sam it’s a wrong number but fails to disconnect the call.

I never knew, not then, not now, whether Cassie thought she had hung up, or whether she wanted to hurt me, or whether she wanted to give me one last gift, one last night listening to her breathe. (In the Woods, p. 588)

The final element of The Likeness that I’d like to mention is the extent to which it gives us Cassie’s perspective on her relationship with Rob, and perhaps fills in one or two of the gaps in his narrative from the first book. Twice she says that their friendship disintegrated because he wanted to sleep with her, and she let him. Rob’s account of the story (see the previous issue) makes it sound much more complicated than that and I wonder if Cassie is simplifying the narrative as a way of making it easier for her to move on from it? It comes as a surprise to find her, rather than her former partner, engaging in emotional evasion, but I suspect that’s what’s happening.

The one time she slept with Rob resulted in a pregnancy, which she terminated (p. 660). This is yet another “divergent parallel” (if you’ll excuse the oxymoron) between her and Lexie, who had being going to keep her child.

It’s not easy to give an adequate account of a novel that makes such full use of its 690 pages. I’ve been meaning to write about it for at least a few years now, and I’ve delayed partly because I was daunted by the size of the task. I may well have more to say about the book in the future but, for now, this will have to do.

I’m a day late with this issue. I had an almost complete draft yesterday but I was sure it would benefit from a fresh look this morning, and I think it has; at least I hope so. I’ll be back on schedule for the next issue, which is due on 28 February and in which I’ll discuss Roisín O’Donnell’s collection of short stories, Wild Quiet.

Note: In the original email version of this issue I was trying out a different approach to the presentation of book titles: using upright, unslanted (i.e. regular) text instead of italics. I explain why in this post. I used to complain 20 years ago, about not being able to italicize titles in email.

Originally posted on Substack (Talk about books), 15–Feb-2021.