The Wych Elm by Tana French (2019)

I have loved Tana French’s books for many different reasons.

The books that preceded this one have been compelling contemporary police procedurals, with a wonderfully real Irish settings. They have been  was a compelling character studies, written with real insight and understanding. They have been  perceptive state of the nation novels, speaking profoundly about a particular time and place …. and they have been linked, but not quite in the way series are usually linked.

Each book was centered around a member of the Dublin Murder Squad, who had usually appeared in an earlier book before becoming the protagonist of their own story. A story that would usually draw out their own story as well as the part they had to play in the investigation of a crime.

That was a wonderfully effective way to both link books and allow then to stand alone; but this book breaks the chain.

All of the familiar elements are there but the perspective is different. This time the character at the centre of the story has no connection to the police or law enforcement.

Toby is a good-looking young man, he is bright and charming, and he comes from a comfortably off and closely-knit middle-class family. His passage though life had been smooth, and he had just survived a crisis at work that would have felled most others, when woke up to find burglars in his flat and was violently attacked. He was left with physical and psychological damage.

His recovery was slow, and so he retired to the family home to convalesce. His uncle – who was terminally ill – had always lived there and other family members – his parents, his aunts and uncles, and his cousins – congregated there for lunch every Sunday and passed though often.

It was after Sunday lunch that the two young children of one of Toby’s cousins made a grisly discovery in the old wych elm at the bottom of the garden. That discovery led to a police investigation, and to the realisation that someone he knew had been murdered and that the evidence pointed to one or more of his family being involved.

Toby began to question his memories of his family, of his past and of his own nature. He tried to work out what happened but he feared what he might learn ….

I don’t want to say more than that about the plot, because I don’t want to spoil the story, and because it is difficult to pull things out and have them make sense on their own.

The  story moved slowly and inexorably, and the narrative voice was perfectly realised. I saw that Toby had strengths and weaknesses, and  I could understood what made him the person that he was. But I had to ask questions about how reliable he was, whether he really couldn’t remember or whether he had chosen to forget, and just how damaged he really was.

All of the characters around him, everything that happened, was utterly believable. The portrayal of someone who had to struggle for the first time in his life is so well done; and the drawing of a family living with a terminal illness is both acute and sensitive.

The writing is clear, lucid and intelligent, and the conversations were so very well done that I could hear the voices in my head.

It was strange not to come to know the detectives well, not to follow the case from their perspective, not to be able to link them to the Dublin Murder Squad. I understand why that wouldn’t have worked for this story, but I did miss the momentum and the depth that I have found in Tana French’s earlier books.

Following a case with a detective was more rewarding than following one man’s story.

I was always engaged but the story took a little too long to come together. When it did come together it was extraordinary. The crime story was intriguing, but the exploration of what happens when a charmed life is derailed and of coming to terms with the past and with new knowlege about that past is the greater story.

This is a very good book, and if the earlier books hadn’t set my expectations so high, if I didn’t have comprisons to draw, I would be able to focus on the many things done so very well in this book and think much less about my relatively small concerns.

I think that the change of perspective unsettled me’ and I think that I need to see where Tana French goes next to put this book into context ….

4 thoughts on “The Wych Elm by Tana French (2019)

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