”And then, too, I had learned early to assume something dark and lethal hidden at the heart of anything I loved. When I couldn't find it, I responded, bewildered and wary, in the only way I knew how: by planting it there myself.” While Tana French’s debut is full of equally powerful and beautiful writing, I chose this quote for two reasons. Firstly, because it spoke to me in a very direct manner as an idea I can relate to all too well. And secondly because it speaks to French’s mastery of characterisation, and her eloquent, insightful grasp of human nature. I’m guilty of bypassing entire sections of bookstores because I assume there will be nothing in them that will interest me. I have an unfair notion of crime shelves as the habitat of clichéd, paint-by-numbers “thrillers” and grisly, hard-boiled detective fiction. Happily, I can admit when I’ve been a presumptuous idiot. Given my confessed disinterest and ignorance, you might assume the odds of my expectations being exceeded were already high. But I’d been primed for great things on the basis of Catie, Tatiana, Emily May and Nataliya’s reviews, so I don’t think it’s a cop out to say that this book kicked my expectations in the face. I thought it would be good. I didn’t expect to feel borderline obsessive about it. Have you ever been so completely ensnared by a book, had its plot and characters and writing so twisted into your brain that you emerge from it feeling off-kilter and disoriented? (Just me?) This was one of those all-consuming reading experiences. It’s an intensely psychological book, almost relentlessly dark, and all the more so for the moments of brightness and humour that punctuate the story. The novel centres on the investigation of the murder a twelve-year-old girl, her body found in the same woods where Detective Rob Ryan’s two friends disappeared 20 years ago. Ryan, found alone in the woods with blood-soaked shoes, has no memory of the events. Drawn back to his former home by the child murder case, Ryan is forced to confront the possibility that it may be linked to his own unresolved past. I’m no judge of mysteries but this one worked for me. French executes her twists beautifully and when she reveals her hand, it’s shocking and fraught with tension. As the pieces fall into place, elements of the story take on new, stomach-turning significance. What was murky becomes chillingly clear, all the more so because the truth was there all along, hiding in plain sight. What was already an unsettling premise becomes utterly disturbing. Beyond the past and present mystery plotlines, this is book about deeply messed up people and complex bonds. French takes care and time to construct fully-fleshed characters with exquisitely nuanced relationships, then tears them apart - ripping open old wounds, exposing vulnerabilities, breaking characters down. It’s difficult to read. We accompany the narrator into the darkest parts of his mind, we watch as he self-destructs. It’s almost horrifying to read, yet completely and heartbreakingly believable. Although French’s writing leans on the verbose side, she never relinquishes control of her prose. It’s dense with imagery, heady with emotion; her narrator is complex and flawed. It’s the kind of writing that demands concentration, yet doesn’t feel painstaking to read. It’s the attention to detail in the writing, the astute observations on relationships and the unflinching portrayal of people held hostage by their personal demons that make this novel so devastating, yet ultimately so moving. However, a caveat: there’s an unresolved element of this story so big you could drive a bus through it. You will either be okay with this, or you’ll want to hurl the book at the nearest wall. I can honestly that say that despite an initial crestfallen moment when I realised what Tana French was going to do with this particular storyline (I might have actually wailed), I think it was the right choice. There’s something about the bereft feeling it stirs that I think complements the journey of the particular character involved. That sensation of hollowness, of deprivation, works with this story, where a firmly closed door wouldn’t. I actually feel that complete closure would ring false, and rob the story of its full, haunting impact.* * * * *My head has that weird, soupy feeling from reading basically non-stop all day, but that in itself says something about this book, and how it wouldn't let me go. Hopefully more coherent thoughts to come..