Viking | 2019 (21 February) | 513p | Review copy | Buy the book
Toby Hennessy considers himself a lucky man. He’s handsome, charming and nothing bad ever seems to happen to him. He has the talent of being able to talk himself out of blame and punishment. Then one night this all changed. After an evening out in the pub with his two oldest friends, Toby returned home to sleep it off but he is woken up by two burglars. Toby’s very badly hurt with a head injury that leaves him with brain damage. His confidence is lost, his vision of the world around him shattered and his easy ability to communicate the way he did before is gone for good. He takes refuge in his family’s ancestral home, the Ivy House, and there Toby and his girlfriend can take care of Toby’s uncle Hugh, a man nearing the end of his life. In a way it’s almost like the old days with Toby’s cousins Susanna and Leon popping in with parents and children in tow for Sunday lunches and chatter. But when a skull is found in the old wych elm in the house’s gorgeous garden, nothing will ever be the same again.
The Wych Elm (or The Witch Elm as it’s called in the US) is an outstanding novel by Tana French. Standing alone, it tells the story of the disintegration of Toby and his family from the point of view of Toby, who, due to his brain damage, is the ultimate unreliable narrator. His injury means that he finds it difficult to express himself. It also means that he has lost or re-shaped memories. He no longer knows himself. He’s a man hanging on, particularly to his lovely girlfriend Melissa and to old familiar things. Hugh is a genealogist and Toby finds comfort in helping him.
Although crime plays its part in The Wych Elm and life is turned upside down by the discovery of the skull in the tree, this isn’t exactly a crime novel. It moves leisurely and carefully as Toby tries to understand what’s happening, remembering the past, grasping for the truth from Susanna and Leon, digging up secrets. It’s an absolutely fascinating portrayal of a small group of people and it isn’t rushed. If I’d been expecting a tense novel of suspense then I would have had to readjust my expectations. But it most certainly isn’t a slow novel. The Wych Elm is thoroughly compelling and I raced through its pages. It’s the type of story that can obsess the reader. It did me. I longed to pick it up whenever I could.
There are detectives in The Wych Elm and, for me, they are one of the highlights, one detective especially. They have an oppressive, disturbing presence, the likes of which I don’t think I’ve encountered before. They are the menacing shadows of this world. Of course, we see them through Toby’s troubled eyes but nevertheless there is something about this one detective in particular that frightened me. At times this is a very disturbing novel. This beautiful old house with its gorgeous garden and happy memories is also a place of monsters.
The Wych Elm is about people and place, memories and self-knowledge, families and being alone. And so much more than that. I was completely beguiled by it. I did feel a little disappointed by the ending, I must admit, possibly because by this stage I had my own idea about how I wished the story to end, but, nevertheless, this is a novel I won’t forget. It’s a glorious achievement and such a rewarding read. It made me very sorry that I haven’t read a Tana French novel before. I know I’ll be reading more.