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Don't Be Afraid of the Dork

Covered in dog hair, Obsessed with books, Wondering what it's all about. I suspect the answer is ice cream and the ocean.

In the Woods - Tana French The action of this psychological mystery takes place in Dublin and its two main characters work for the police murder squad. Rob Ryan is the narrator and the person whose psychology is at the heart of the book and Cassie Maddox is his partner. There are two parallel mysteries being explored: the one they are investigating and one that involved Rob when he was 12 years old. Both take place in the rather depressing suburb of Dublin called Knocknaree. The mystery they are investigating is the murder of a 12 yr old girl, Katy Devlin. Rob’s personal mystery is the unsolved disappearance of his two best friends when he was 12 and living in this same neighborhood. One day, he and his two friends entered the wood that borders Knocknaree but only he emerged; bloody, clothing torn and with no memory. Are the two crimes connected? Will Rob finally remember what happened 20 years ago? Who killed Katy Devlin? These are the surface questions driving the mystery.

While the plot and story of the crimes is fascinating, the real strength of this book is the characters and relationships. Rob and Cassie’s partnership and friendship is the kind we all wish we had – they trust each other utterly, and enjoy each other’s company above all things. It’s this core relationship which keeps Rob likeable and sympathetic for most of the book. As narrator, he describes their partnership and makes a pretty believable argument that unlike the rest of “boys club” on the murder squad he has no problem partnering a woman and seeing her as equal to him and to the job. He’s smitten with her and not entirely in a romantic sense but professionally there is no one he trusts or respects more. He sees them as the perfect team.

But Rob also has his emotions screwed down tight. He performs as a human being well enough but much of it is an act and as he is increasingly exposed to his childhood trauma and loss, Rob’s control starts to crack. And that of course leads to the inevitable and ¾ of the way through the book Rob and Cassie fall into bed together. What happens next makes sense but almost had me putting the book down. Rob immediately morphs into a gigantic, chauvinist asshat. Cassie for him is no longer his friend, the person who he knew intimately and respected but is transformed into “a girl” which for him is a lying, manipulative creature; an emotional time bomb undeserving of respect. He almost immediately forgets who she is and can only think about what she is. In short, he becomes unbearable and extremely unlikeable. It was painful to read about him being so wrong about so many things.

This transformation of Rob’s was obviously purposeful and my curiosity at why an author would transform a sympathetic narrator into a prat kept me reading. Rob doesn’t really get any better or redeem himself but as I reflected on his story I realized that clues to this less noble part of his character were there all along. His disdain for his female roommate - granted she is kind of horrible but we are seeing her from his perspective and she is almost a caricature of a “female”. His preference, stated several times, for waif-like delicate women who need “rescuing”. And of course, connecting his flaws back to the plot, his easy manipulation by Rosalind who overplays the damsel in distress but it fools him. It was then that I really appreciated Tana French’s expertise in drawing her character.

Besides her talent for characters Tana French is a beautiful writer whose language is descriptive and poetic without being flowery. It’s a delight to read or listen to. My biggest complaint about the book is a common one. The mystery at the heart of this book – Rob’s mystery – is never resolved. This in and of itself is extremely unsatisfying, but it also means that Rob is never truly redeemed; he never really changes. This really bothered me. I guess the point is that life very rarely is tied up with a pretty bow and people are rarely able to change. But this was a mystery and the thing that makes mysteries satisfying reading is the solution. For me it brought a satisfying read to an unsatisfying end.