Tuesday 22 October 2019

Tana French's The Wych Elm: The skeleton in the tree

Crime: The Wych Elm

Tana French

Viking €15.00

The Wych Elm
The Wych Elm

Anne Marie Scanlon

Tana French's seventh novel, The Wych Elm, is ostensibly her first 'standalone' work. Readers familiar with her first six books will know that despite the Murder Squad link each novel is unique and different. The major change with The Wych Elm is the point of view - instead of the police searching for answers, it's one of the suspects.

Toby has led a charmed life. He went to a 'good' school where he was a popular rugby player. He's well aware that he's a "lucky bastard" as he's good looking, naturally charming and people take to him. He's never felt the need to bully or intimidate, he's always had a good relationship with his parents, has a good career in PR, is still pals with his two besties from school and has a perfect relationship with girlfriend Melissa. Even though he's an only child he has a semi-sibling relationship with his cousins Leon and Susanna with whom he shared magical summers with at their Uncle Hugo's home, The Ivy House.

All this changes when he is attacked by burglars and he almost dies. French is brilliant at conveying the sudden terror that overwhelms someone who has never experienced any sort of crisis. The assault leaves Toby changed, physically and mentally. While he struggles to cope with the pain, memory loss and emotional trauma, the worst aspect for Toby is that who he is, is irrevocably changed. "If stuff gets better… so what?… Even if I end up running a marathon, I'm not the same person any more. That's the point."

The theme of identity is one that permeates the entire book. Toby realises that being a 'good person' is easy when there are no difficult challenges to face. His cousin Leon recalls not wanting to come out because "It was the thought of people seeing me as something different. Not being a person to them any more, not being just me, ever again; being a gay". Another theme is how power and conversely powerlessness are linked to identity.

While Toby is recuperating his Uncle Hugo is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour and both he and Melissa go to stay with him. Then a skull is found in the Wych Elm of the title and skeletons - physical and figurative begin to emerge. French writes beautifully and lyrically and can conjure up a sense of place and atmosphere like few others. The Wych Elm is both entertaining and thought-provoking but it's uneven in execution - the critical event, the finding of the skull, doesn't occur until almost half way through.

French (left)is usually brilliant at creating three-dimensional believable characters but not once in 511 pages does the saint-like Melissa lose her cool which stretched my belief more than her wearing pretty vintage dresses day and night.

Not French's best, but still better than the rest out there.

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