Book review The Secret Place Tara French


In a remote valley in Afghanistan, a platoon of U.S. soldiers establishes an oupost. The Korangal Valley had a reputation as one of the most dangerous places in an already dangerous country, overrun with Taliban insurgents who were not friendly to either the Americans or anyone from the central government in Kabul. 

“Restrepo” tracks the year a platoon spends defending its remote redoubt in a hostile land. Attacks are near daily, and everything from resupply to leaving and entering the outpost is harrowing. Outpost Restrepo, named after Pfc. Juan Sebastián Restrepo, who is killed earlier in the campaign, is a rough and easy target for Taliban looking to expel coalition forces from the wild valley. The outpost comes under constant attack: mortars, sniper and machine gun fire. As the attacks continue, the film documents the toll taken on the unit and its frustrations in pacifying the area, through documentary footage and interviews. 

The film does a good job of bringing the immediacy of combat onto the screen, wrapped in the fog of war and the travails and frustrations of a nearly impossible mission. Not surprising given it’s a documentary, it’s about as real as war can be without being there. The film also does a good job of leaving political considerations at the door, although it’s hard not thinking of the futility and failure of 14 years of war in Afghanistan while watching the movie. The soldiers in the movie show their bravery and consummate professionalism and rawness is a needed departure from most warzone reporting or war movies, both fictional and not.

“Restrepo” (2010) Directed by Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger. Starring the soldiers of Battle Company 2nd of the 503rd Infantry Regiment 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. Rated R, 93 minutes.

— Don Iler


“The Secret Place” is one of those novels you won’t want to put down. And yet, you’ll hate to reach the final pages, because you don’t want it to end.

Irish author Tara French is a master at examining events from all sides, digging into the psychology of the characters and describing both people and places. In “The Secret Place,” she also shows off her excellent grasp of the way people communicate — by voice, by look and by social media. The way she writes the dialogue for the teen-age characters is so true-to-life — and, consequently, so disturbing.

The novel is about the nature of relationships, our overwhelming need to be part of a group — or not, and how we shape our circumstances to fit our ambitions.

Set in an exclusive Catholic boarding school, it examines the friendships between two sets of young women and the intense rivalry between the two groups. It also delves deeply into the push-pull that develops between two ambitious police detectives, both of whom are proud to be considered outsiders as they go diligently about their work.

The detectives arrive more than a year after a young man has been found brutally murdered on the school lawn. The original investigation into his death stalled quickly, in large part due to the way the girls closed ranks and kept potential clues to themselves.

But now new information has surfaced in the form of a mysterious postcard tacked up on a bulletin board near the school’s art room. “I know who killed him” is printed across a photo of the dead teen.

Is the clue true, or just the work of a troublemaker? Is the killer a student or staff member at the school? Will the girls allow the detectives to see behind their school uniforms and makeup, revealing both the strengths of and the chinks in their bonds?

It’s great writing by French, who’s a true master of her craft.

I do have one quibble: This is the second of French’s five books to have “Place” in its two-word title. That’s just maddening.

“The Secret Place,” Tara French, Viking, 2014

— Starla Pointer