Tuesday, August 21, 2012

{read: psychological drama} Broken Harbor by Tana French

Broken Harbor is much more than a standard police procedural. It is at once a complex psychological drama, as well as an exploration of the impact of economic recessions and mental illness on families already struggling to stay afloat. This is a book you won't want to put down.

Scorcher Kennedy and his rookie partner, Richie, are called to investigate the murder of a husband and two children that left the wife/mother in intensive care. Scorcher is looking for an easy arrest on a high-publicity case to put his career back on track, and Richie wants to solve his first murder. But, of course, there are wrinkles and twists to what should have been a run-of-the-mill investigation. The baby cameras. The holes in the walls. What was going on in this house?

Coincidentally, the nearly deserted housing development where the house is located is also the spot where Scorcher and his family used to go on vacation when he was a boy — and it was the scene of his family's great tragedy. Despite his best efforts, echoes of his past bubble up into his present, starting with his sister, Dina, who is both beautiful and crazy. As he says, "Various therapists and psychiatrists have diagnosed various things along the way, but what it comes down to is that Dina is no good at life. It takes a knack that she's never quite got hold of. She can fake it for months at a stretch, sometimes even a year, but it takes concentration like she's tightrope walking, and in the end she always wobbles and goes flying."

French skimps on neither plot nor character development. Even the supporting characters in this book, like the Grogans who live down the street from the murdered family, are well-drawn and three-dimensional. She creates characters in which we recognize something of ourselves as we watch Scorcher identify with them, whether he wants to or not. Then his own life starts to fall apart, and he questions the things he always believed to be true about himself.

Although Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is the hit psychological thriller that everyone's talking about,  I'd recommend Broken Harbor instead. Gone Girl contains some surprises, but the plot felt contrived and even predictable in places, and Flynn's characters seemed two-dimensional. In contrast, French peels away the layers of her characters and lays them bare before us, exposing their motivations and showing us how easily things can go wrong, one small step at a time. The final pages of Broken Harbor, in which the killer explains what happened and why, are chilling and heartbreaking. I had high expectations for this book, and that usually means I'm disappointed. In this rare case, the book exceeded my hopes.

Broken Harbor by Tana French (Penguin Group, 2012)
My rating: 5 stars

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