When I read Lesley's review of Broken Harbour here, I thought to myself, all right, I must be missing something. I mean, Broken Harbour is nominated for an award this year. Why am I the only one who has difficulty with it? What am I missing in this book? Because, you see, I have a confession to make: I both loved and hated this book.
What I loved:
Okay, Broken Harbour is brilliant in places. I really liked the main character, Mick Kennedy, and his family. His mother's madness and what it did to the family is one of the best pieces I have read on family secrets and how they destroy everyone from the inside out. Mick's sense of needing to control everything comes from this. His inability to work with anyone, and his desire to be in control in everything, especially in pursuing evidence and interviews, is insightful and clever. This was the most gripping part of the book for me, the revelation through the book of Mick's family and what happened to them at Broken Harbour.
The mystery itself was really well done. I couldn't take my eyes off the page. There I was that Sunday in February, reading the book intently, planning with one part of my mind how long it would take me to read it in one sitting, and if anyone would mind if Sunday dinner were really late, say after 8 pm, so I could keep reading straight through to the end. I did not want to stop. That's how good the first half is. Then suddenly! Bam!
There I sat, blinking dazedly in the dining table (where I do a lot of my reading when the family is home.) What had just happened? I was thrown out of the book at the point when Richie, Mick's new and young partner, and Mick are going through the chief suspect's home. Richie finds something, but it is not until the end of the book that we learn what it is. At the moment that he finds it, his sudden change of character shocked me. It threw me out. But it wasn't just that, it was as Mick gets the phone call pointing to more evidence that the husband is the killer. I think I might have said out loud, "but he didn't!" and as I sat there in the dining room, I realized I was upset with the story. It wasn't the husband. It was the wife. I knew it. And I did something I haven't done in many many years: I read the ending, to see if I was right.
I eventually two days later went back and read the rest of the book. I'm glad I did, because I saw the rest of what Mick had become and what happens in the investigation. But the question I was left with was, how could the killer have done it? I was shocked that I was suddenly out of the story like that. Something wasn't right in the telling, and it's taken me most of these weeks to figure out what it was.
What I don't believe in the book:
This is what bothered me so much: I kept waiting for someone in the family that is murdered, the mother or the father, to be revealed to have some history of mental illness or depression. It was the only thing that made sense. And it wasn't there. The slow deterioration of the father, the wife's panic as their live unraveled: all well written and believable. But neither person is shown to have any history of a slight break, depression, anything that would make what happened that night believable.
What I really wanted, was for the mother to have had some kind of history, that would make what happened believable. The husband's breakdown is so well-done. That's what economic loss can do to someone who hasn't shown signs of any kind of problem coping before with setbacks. It was the wife that bothered me. Not just what she did, but why she did it.
I have suffered from depression on and off in my life. My family suffers from it. Anxiety, stress, and panic attacks. We all have them. So when I read about Mick and his family, the great terrible act, and the repercussions on the characters, what happens to each family member is note perfect. I haven't lived through such a terrible event, but there are scars in my family from what depression has done and is doing to all of us. So this part was gripping and I couldn't look away. It's one of the best accounts of madness and suicide that I have come across in fiction. Which is why I wanted the same kind of depth or understanding with the murderer, to understand why the act was committed.
It is only today, reading Lesley's fun post and all the comments, and thinking over everyone's general acclaim of this book, that I was able to understand that I wanted the wife to suffer from depression too. That would have made what happened next in the story, absolutely believable, and so much more horrifying than it already is in the novel. Because then the breakdown of Ireland's society would fully impact on the broken, the ones least able to protect themselves, and the most vulnerable first. Though I suspect that Tana French wanted to show how the breakdown in the economy could affect normal people, by which I mean healthy people who don't suffer from mental illness. I think (and thought while reading it) in this story, why didn't the wife just pick up the kids and leave? So what if she couldn't admit their live wasn't perfect? Is that excuse enough to do what she did? Or why not get her husband the help he needed? I know why she did it, on the surface it makes sense: the whole family was getting infected by the husband's madness. But in the secret places of the mind, where darkness and struggle really live, this book lacks that resonance for me in the wife's story. I much more believe in Mick's family than I do in what the wife in the victim's family did to hers.
As a breakdown of a seemingly normal family, it is good. I can see why this book is garnering praise. It just doesn't fully ring true. I wish it did. I wish I didn't know what I know about depression, too.....
So, it's a brilliant mystery novel that mostly succeeds.
Do you agree? Disagree? Did you love this novel? Did anyone have any difficulty with it like I did?
Bibliophile by the Sea
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Rhapsody in Books
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If you have read it, please let me know and I'll link to it.