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In the Woods by Tana French

I'm a pretty faithful re-reader. There's a list of books I tend to revisit every year/eighteen months or so: Hey Nostradamus by Douglas Coupland, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford, Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman, Atonement by Ian McEwan. When I crack open a book I've read several times before and still get excited to read again, it's like when I visit old friends from middle school that I see only rarely--that same homey, nostalgic sensation that warms the heart.

There's a risk to re-reading, though. Sometimes you might find that a book that you had the hots for three years ago (I'm what Fadiman calls a "carnal" reader) leaves you cold now, or that once the ephemeral shimmer of not knowing what happens fades you're pretty bored by the whole endeavor. Which actually sucks, because reading an entire book takes an enormous amount of time, energy and dedication, and there's nothing worse than going to the house of a girl who braided your hair at sleepovers in the fourth grade only to find out you're in completely different life places and have nothing to talk about anymore.

I've probably mentioned the new book club I'm in. Well, since I'm the best read chickadee (obvi we're all girls, boys don't read) in the group, I tend to be the one throwing out suggestions for upcoming meetings, which is why two out of the three books we've read so far have been re-reads for me. I thought I'd written a review of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, but maybe it's in draft. Whatever, that was a fine re-read for me, but it didn't need to happen. On the other hand, my revisiting of In the Woods was inevitable, but in the course of reading it over I found it a changed book, or (and this is infinitely more likely) I have changed in the interim.

In the Woods, a literary murder mystery set in modern day Dublin, Ireland, is narrated by one Rob Ryan, a detective assigned to the (non-existent) Murder squad. But Rob wasn't always his name; until he was twelve, his name was Adam Ryan, and he was an only child growing up in suburban Knocknaree. One day, near the end of summer, Adam and his two friends, Peter and Jamie, ran into the thick, wild woods behind Knocknaree, and only Adam came out again, near-catatonic with fear and trauma, his shoes filled with someone else's blood. In addition to changing his name, Rob has done his damnedest to distance himself from the Knocknaree tragedy; he's adopted a new accent, a new personality, and a new attitude towards everything. At the beginning of the book, Rob cautions us--he lies. It's part of his job, he says, but it's also a learned part of his entire life--keep the past at bay by denying it, obfuscating it, deleting it from your memory.

Rob and his partner, Cassie Maddox (one of my favorite women in all of literature, a real woman, brave and strong and dignified and also capable of staggering vulnerability), have a singular relationship, a combination of siblings, best friends, and a married couple (sans sex). Cassie is the only person outside of Rob's parents and himself who know the truth about who he really is, at least as far as his childhood tragedy is concerned. So when Rob and Cassie are called out to Knocknaree to investigate the murder of a twelve-year-old girl, they conspire to cover up his connection to the old case and set to solve the crime themselves--with near-disastrous consequences.

When I first read In the Woods, I emerged from it pretty much in love with Rob Ryan, at least as in love with a fictional character as you can be. He's an exquisitely drawn man as far as I can tell (not being a man, you see, it's hard for me to know for sure), and he's just so tortured that I could hardly stand it. Don't roll your eyeballs at me, boys! Chicks dig that shit. But now, being a few years older and hopefully at least a little bit wiser, I found my relationship with Rob to be a little more complicated. Most of the time I was just totally pissed off at him. Basically, kitty has changed. I'm taking this as a good sign, for myself personally, but it made reading In the Woods a different experience this time around.

Back then I took everything in the book at face value, but this time I found myself sort of enraged at how irresponsible it is for him and Cassie (and she's at fault here, too, which she definitely understands by the end of the novel) to be investigating a case that has anything at all to do with Knocknaree, and how ridiculous it is that he's never been in therapy for what happened. I'm mad at him for constantly believing that he's right even when he most clearly IS NOT, mad at how he treats Cassie, mad at how totally delusional he is about his entire life, how selfish he is, how cruel he can be. BUT--these are not bad things, as far as the story is concerned. These are the cogs that make the story work. The book wouldn't exist if Rob was a totally well-adjusted awesome cop, and the reread actually made the novel more intense, because not only do you have the mystery, you also have the tension between what Rob believes is going on and what is actually going on, which you can't see if you don't know the solution to the mystery. Sigh. Books are so cool.

Unsurprisingly, Tana French's writing is an absolute joy to read. You're just not going to find a debut author with as much style, emotion and raw talent than she has. The way she builds Rob and Cassie, word by word, flaw by flaw, piece by telling piece, is deft and artful, perhaps the product of her acting background. It's the sort of book that can make another writer feel insignificant in comparison, but for the right kind of writer it can be an inspiration, and for the right kind of reader it can be a revelation.

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