Title: The Wych Elm (aka The Witch Elm)
Author: Tana French
Toby is a happy-go-lucky charmer who’s dodged a scrape at work and is celebrating with friends when the night takes a turn that will change his life: he surprises two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Struggling to recover from his injuries, beginning to understand that he might never be the same man again, he takes refuge at his family’s ancestral home to care for his dying uncle Hugo. Then a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden – and as detectives close in, Toby is forced to face the possibility that his past may not be what he has always believed.
The Witch Elm asks what we become, and what we’re capable of, when we no longer know who we are.
Tana French is an author whose books I can always rely on to be entertaining and well-written, and though The Wych Elm is not part of her well-loved Dublin Murder Squad series, it’s just as tense and gripping. Though perhaps quite slow at building the tension for a lot of the story, the strong sense of atmosphere and the unreliability of the main character Toby makes this novel utterly addictive.
The book has drama, tension, some great characters (though not necessarily likeable) and plenty of mystery, which kept me glued to the pages. Instead of a ‘whodunnit’ or straightforward crime novel, it’s really more of an intense character study of Toby, and the family and friends around him – and of course the white, upper class male privilege that gilds almost every part of his life.
Toby is not necessarily very likeable, but he’s very interesting. He seems to represent that ‘popular’, privileged guy who coasts through life with no idea what other people go through – case in point, his own cousins, who have told him about certain important occurances, which he still chooses to ignore with disastorous consequences. I do enjoy reading books with unlikable characters; that conflicted feeling I get always makes me even more interested in what’s to come. To illustrate Toby as cocky/ a bit of a shit, here are some quotes:
- When describing his younger years: “we were in the same class and we we’re all popular and cool or whatever you want to call it” (*eyeroll*)
- On telling Susanna about fitting in at school: “I had spent a fair bit of our teenage years explaining to her why she needed to make an actual effort with clothes and hair and whatever, unless she wanted the shit slagged out of her” (I could feel the anger building!)
- Susanna explains what Toby told her years ago when she started receiving unwanted artention from men: “you explained to me that it was acutely a good thing that guys were starting to fancy me, it wasn’t something to freak out about, I’d have a lot more fun if I got a boyfriend instead of spending my whole life saving for Tibet”. – because it’s of course more important to have a boyfriend and fit into society’s expectations of women rather than save for travelling…
The Wych Elm certainly highlights the differences in growing up between men and women, and that these double standards and unfair judgements last unfortunately long after school days and rocky teenage years.
It feels like this novel is one of many parts; Toby has some seriously bad luck after a lucky and priveleged start in life which includes getting into serious problems at work due to an error in judgement, then his flat is broken into and he’s left fighting for his life, followed by more trouble that I won’t give away here… Because of Toby’s injuries, we’re never sure if everything he’s saying is true, or if his mind has become seriously disturbed due to the attack, and this adds an extra layer on unease. However the common vein running through all of this story is the idea of privelege, how other people perceive us and why, the importance of memory in making us who we are, and how a person (like Toby) might feel if suddenly he is the one who is struggling – in more ways than one. Tana French allows the reader to explore this, and throws in various mysteries to keep us guessing as we go along.
I’d recommend reading this without knowing too much about it, as that just adds to the intrigue. The writing is brilliant (as always with Tana French’s novels) and doesn’t rely on cheap thrills or a particularly fast pace; the plot moves along pretty slowly at points, but stick with it as I found it to be a great read!
Many thanks to Viking for providing a copy of this book on which I chose to write an honest and unbiased review.