“Secret” Influences on Tana French’s “In the Woods”

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“I am, of course, romanticizing; a chronic tendency of mine.” – In the Woods

“I think that [my fatal flaw] is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at at all costs.” – The Secret History

I didn’t really know anything about Tana French until I read a recent profile in The New Yorker, which made me curious about her work for several reasons. So when my friend C. offered me her copy of In The Woods, I accepted it and jumped in.

One reason (although not the only one) for my curiosity was the New Yorker writer’s remark that French’s second novel, The Likeness, has a cast of characters that “pay homage to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.” I haven’t read The Likeness yet, but throughout my reading of In the Woods, I kept catching echoes of Tartt’s novel, so many that I started bookmarking them.

I’m not sure whether French was slyly planting these turns of phrase as another form of homage, or whether she’s just read The Secret History so many times that she has internalized some of its language. (I’m not throwing stones, because I probably live in a glass house when it comes to this point.)

Here are a few phrases and sentences that seemed eerily familiar to me until I picked up my well-loved copy of The Secret History and started making side-by-side comparisons.

Both novels feature a female character whose name begins with a C, and both women are slightly tomboyish right down to their toes: French gives us Cassie with her “small bare feet, smooth calves muscled like a boy’s,” which reminded me of Tartt’s Camilla and her “lovely bare, strong-muscled legs” and “her bare legs: tawny calves, slender ankles, lovely dusty-soled boy feet.”

The narrators of both books are tormented by secrets and horrified by the crimes they witness, and both struggle to maintain their self-control.

French: “Both of them were managing to keep on top of things without even seeming to put much effort into it. I was the only one who was twitching and gibbering and spooking at shadows like a bit part in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Tartt: “Nobody else was falling apart; yet here I was, shaking all over and seeing bats like Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend.”

Both narrators tend to recall traumatic episodes with brief, isolated phrases — here are two flashbacks of crises that involved fair young women:

French: “blond wing lifting

Tartt: “(flutter of white)”

Both of them also have a habit of asking rhetorical questions to introduce nostalgic musings about lost golden eras in their lives.

French: “How can I ever make you understand about Cassie and me?…

Tartt: “What should I tell you?…”

Both of them are prone to nostalgia and introspection.

French: “I thought about a lot of things, that night…”

Tartt: “I think about it quite a bit, actually, that look on his face. I think about a lot of things.

Both men later recall certain events through encounters with modern verse.

French: “Long afterwards, flicking through pages in a dusty bookshop, I came across these lines…”

Tartt: “It was many years later, and far away, when I came across this passage in The Waste-Land…”

And both of them admire people who seem to face difficult situations with integrity rather than taking an easy way out.

French: [people who] “can walk steady and open-eyed to meet the thing that will take or transform their lives and whose high cold criteria are beyond our understanding.”

Tartt: [someone who] “felt the need to make a noble gesture, something to prove to us and to himself that it was in fact possible to put those high cold principles…to use”

If you’re still with me, here’s a more extended example. One of French’s characters in In The Woods recounts participating in the group rape of a local girl:

“It  was like a nightmare, or a bad trip. It went on forever. . . I looked round at the trees and they were closing in on us, shooting out brand-new branches, I thought they were about to wrap around us and swallow us up. and all the colors looked wrong, off, like in one of those colorized old films. The sky had gone almost white, and there were things shooting across it, little black things. . . For a second I swear I thought we were hunters and this was an animal we’d brought down…”

At once of the climaxes of The Secret History, a character describes a night of Bacchanalian ritual:

“It was heart-shaking. Glorious. Torches, dizziness, singing. Wolves howling around us and a bull bellowing in the dark. The river ran white. It was like a film in fast motion, the moon waxing and waning, clouds rushing across the sky. Vines grew from the ground so fast they twined up the trees like snakes. . . Camilla said that during part of it, she’d believed she was a deer, and that was odd, too, because the rest of us remember chasing a deer through the woods, for miles it seemed.”

And both androgynously attractive female characters end up sadder but wiser by the conclusions of their respective stories:

French: “She was older, no longer the wicked limber girl with the stalled Vespa, but no less beautiful to me for that…”

Tartt: “…she really was older, not the glancing-eyed girl I had fallen in love with but no less beautiful for that…”

Overall, In The Woods held my interest and keep me turning the pages. I don’t like it less for these parallels; I just kept getting distracted by these bits of echoes strewn throughout the book. I wonder whether I’ll notice anything similar in her other novels. I may skip The Likeness, if it’s really that much of an homage to Tartt, and try another book in the series next.

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