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Tana French: The Wych Elm review - a lucky man and his downfall | reviews, news & interviews

Tana French: The Wych Elm review - a lucky man and his downfall

Tana French: The Wych Elm review - a lucky man and his downfall

A stand-alone mystery from the queen of the Dublin murder squad series

Tana French: mining new realms of pain, fear and the disintegration of the selfJessica Ryan

A Tana French crime novel is never just a thriller. Probably more acclaimed in the USA than the UK (she gets rave reviews in the New Yorker and the New York Times) French always transcends the genre, stylistically, emotionally, atmospherically.

Her Dublin Murder Squad series, with its detailed police procedurals, is addictively many-layered: in the chilling Broken Harbour, the collapse of the Irish housing boom forms a menacing backdrop to family crack-ups, a multiple murder and a detective who feels the presence of evil as a “high hum” in his skull; in The Secret Place, a girls’ boarding school, with deadly cliques and brilliant teen terminology, takes centre stage. And these murder squad detectives – the awful Quigley, the staunch Superintendant O’Kelly, the sparky Cassie Maddox and others – reappear over the series of six novels.  

But The Wych Elm, her first stand-alone book, is different. The detectives are peripheral, with police procedurals taking place in the wings. We’re completely under the spell of the narrator, Toby, a lucky, popular, easy-going young guy – “Worrying had always seemed to me like a laughable waste of time and energy” - who works in PR at a Dublin art gallery, has a lovely though rather too perfect girlfriend, and enjoys a few drinks in the pub with his best mates from school. There’s been some unpleasantness at the gallery over a forgery matter, but Toby feels he’s come out on top. As usual.

Toby’s voice is charming, though we soon get glimpses that not everyone is so enamoured. It’s clear that one of those mates in the pub is infuriated by the way Toby’s wealthy parents support him, the way things fall into his lap, the way he’s oblivious to his own privilege. And that business at the gallery – someone else got fired for it, while Toby’s insouciance won the day. Being lucky can make you enemies.

When Toby’s brutally attacked in the night by burglars at his flat, everything changes. French takes us into new realms of pain, fear and the collapse of personality, with no police on hand to make order out of chaos, just a victim’s agony. The detectives visit his bedside, of course, but they’re seen as an invasive nuisance.

Toby no longer feels lucky, though his doctor keeps telling him that he is – he almost died from his head injuries. But wychelmnow his speech is slurred, there’s weakness on his left side, his memory’s shot, he can’t find the right words for things. Even his previously happy relationship with his mother is affected. And he’s consumed with fear, “a ravenous, whirling black vortex”, that sucks him under. People don’t treat him in the same way. He’s suddenly a loser, a village idiot, whose personality, something he took for granted, has been ripped out from beneath him.

Almost half the book is taken up with Toby’s changed circumstances and how he copes with being paranoid, terrified, “restless as a tweaker”. Melissa, the girlfriend, sticks by him – she would – and believes he’s the same Toby as before the attack, but that’s not enough (and in fact his relationship with her has an unreal, idealised quality that doesn’t bode well). French describes his new powerlessness elegantly: “My outlines had been scrubbed out of existence…so that I bled away at every margin into the world.”

The main comfort, apart from Xanax and painkillers, is to be found in his uncle Hugo’s old house, scene of happy family holidays and druggy teenage parties with cousins in days gone by. Toby and Melissa move in there to look after Hugo, a genealogist who is dying from a brain tumour. Toby has visions of him and his uncle "having synchronised seizures" but settles into helping Hugo with his work and trying to put himself back together.

Which brings us to the wych elm and the cold case that forms the second part of the novel. It’s not a spoiler (it’s revealed on the book jacket) to explain that a skeleton is found in a hole of the old tree in Hugo’s garden (a similar real-life case provided inspiration for French). Whose it is, and how it got there, leads to Toby’s further disintegration. The question of whether his injuries and PTSD have made him an unreliable narrator becomes crucial. And his relationship with his cousins Susanna and Leon, who he thought he was so close to, is thrown into question as well. It seems that he's been blind to many things that others found painful. The police are back too, making things worse, doing their job, asking questions and digging up the garden.

As always, French’s feeling for place is outstanding. When Toby returns to his flat from hospital, “it was the air that was wrong…It didn’t smell abandoned; it smelled intensely, feverishly occupied by someone who wasn’t me and didn’t want me there.” And after the elm has been cut down, “there was something off about the sounds of the house: too loud, naked and raw, as if the windows had thinned…the acoustics of the garden had changed, wind and sounds barrelling unchecked through the space…”

If there is a problem with this intensely readable novel, it’s that Toby’s narration is so compelling that the murder mystery and the shocking (and somewhat unlikely) denouement seem almost like devices (though very complex, clever ones) planted on top of what really matters – who we are, what we’re capable of and what lies beneath the trappings of personality. Tana French is a master of her genre and she could transcend it even further. But as one of her detectives muses, “Murder is the only crime that makes us ask why”, and she is a genius at searching for the answers.

The Wych Elm by Tana French (Viking, £12.99)

He’s suddenly a loser, a village idiot, whose personality, something he took for granted, has been ripped out from beneath him


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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