A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Do you believe that out there somewhere is a person with the same face as you? Someone who has not just a passing likeness, but an exact copy of your face? Could you believe that if aforementioned person died you would be able to step into their life and pretend to be them, fooling the people dearest to them?
For me the concept of exact doubles (other than identical womb-sharers) is like little green men on Mars, or telekinesis; I’d like it to be real but I can’t quite believe it. Aside from the face, happening upon the correct voice, mannerisms, histories and personal idiosyncrasies so as to fool colleagues, friends and lovers would also be quite a challenge, I’d imagine.
Cassie Maddox is a detective who once went undercover for several months using a self-created identity, that of a student: Lexie Madison. Years later when Cassie has moved to a different department within the Irish police force, a murder victim turns up with identification pertaining to the invented Lexie Madison. The rub is that not only does the corpse possess Cassie’s false identity, she also possesses Cassie’s face. Initial investigations indicate that the interloper has taken over Lexie from where Cassie left off, even enrolling at a college to study for a PhD. Assuming that the impersonator had repeatedly been mistaken for a person called Lexie Madison and had for some reason assumed that name and life, Cassie’s unstable boss comes up with a cunning plan for Cassie to impersonate the victim and hopefully gain some clue as to Lexie’s murderer. So off Cassie goes in Lexie’s clothes to Whitethorn House, a crumbling manor house on the edge of the moors where Lexie lived a seemingly idyllic life with her four student friends, who are rather more like soul-mates than friends.
I wouldn’t blame anyone for assuming that this novel would be dreadful: the plot seems unlikely, melodramatic, and includes the sort of mission that would surely never be approved by any police force. How then does Tana French steer the book away from ridiculousness and into the realms of gripping thriller?
Concept reservations aside, The Likeness is a densely-written, emotionally-intelligent novel with a cast of fascinating characters and lashings of suspense. As a writer and a reader I admired the quality of Tana French’s prose, which goes far beyond the functional and is often beautifully lyrical. The novel works well as a thriller as the unlikeliness of Cassie being able to accurately impersonate Lexie (and the resulting potential for disaster) greatly amps up the tension. The reader waits on tenterhooks to see if Cassie will be discovered as a fraud, all the time wondering quite how her new friends will react if they discover who she is.
A few pages in I was entranced and swept along by the narrative. The writing and the characterisation was engaging and I enjoyed inhabiting the world of Whitethorn House with Cassie. I was keen to find out who had murdered Lexie, and was pleased to find that I had guessed incorrectly.
So if the reading process was enjoyable and the book unputdownable, does it matter that the central concept was a tad implausible?
Incidentally, now that we are nearing Christmas I am going to flag up books that I think would make excellent presents. This is one of them. It is a handsome, addictive book of roaring fires, intense relationships and psychological complexity. Just the thing for getting a grumpy reveller like me through the festive season.
Hodder & Stoughton, ISBN-13: 978-0340924778, Hardcover, 560 pages, £12,99.