Sunday 20 October 2019

The Wych Elm: Tana French returns with a tale of secrets, lies and a mystery skeleton

Thriller: The Wych Elm

Tana French

Viking, hardback, 528 pages, €18

Quality: French's fans include Stephen King
Quality: French's fans include Stephen King

Ruth Gilligan

They say never judge a book by its cover, but what about its opening sentence?

Tana French's highly-anticipated seventh novel, The Wych Elm, begins: "I've always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person."

The 'I' reveals the novel's first-person perspective, with all 500-plus pages told from the point of view of Toby Hennessy, a confident young Dubliner who spends his days doing PR for an art gallery and his nights necking pints with his mates.

The 'basically' provides a hint of Toby's southside lilt and the world of private rugby school privilege from which he hails. Meanwhile, Toby's self-diagnosis as a 'lucky person' points to the theme at the heart of French's book - whether good fortune is something we earn, something we inherit, or something stitched into "the secret tapestries of [our] DNA".

Early in the novel, Toby's fortune suffers a hefty blow when his apartment is burgled by two anonymous intruders who proceed to beat him to a pulp. As if a brain injury, an awkward limp and a decidedly-bruised ego weren't enough, Toby then learns his bachelor uncle Hugo has terminal cancer. Toby retreats to the old Hennessy family home, The Ivy House, to simultaneously care for Hugo and nurse his own open wounds.

Of course, bad things always happen in threes, and during Toby's stay - coloured by an endless stream of visits from an eccentric cast of concerned relatives - a human skull is discovered in the trunk of the giant wych elm that looms at the back of the house. As Detective Martin neatly summarises: "Inside, what, five months? You're burglarised, you're nearly killed, and a skeleton turns up in your back garden? What are the odds?" The odds are Toby isn't as lucky as he thought.

French's seventh novel is her first stand-alone book. Up until now, she has garnered international acclaim for her excellent 'Dublin Murder Squad' series, although the series itself offered no paint-by-numbers sequels. Instead, each instalment adopted an alternative perspective and combined a unique mix of police procedural, psychological thriller and, in certain cases, Gothic romance.

American horror doyen Stephen King is just one of French's many fans; he argues that she "transcends" the crime genre and writes something closer to literary fiction. French achieves this, King explains, through the "fine-drawn quality" of her characterisation.

Much of The Wych Elm revolves around Toby trying desperately to reconstruct his own damaged sense of character (or as he puts it, "to bring together all my pulverised fragments"). Meanwhile, large chunks of the book are dedicated to Toby's conversations with his close-as-siblings cousins Susanna (nerdy humanitarian-turned-young-mum) and Leon (Berlin-based hedonist), during which they painstakingly dissect the teenage memories that have been unearthed by recent events. Through these intimate - and lengthy - exchanges, we gain a deep understanding of each complex individual and the intricate dynamic which has evolved between them down the years.

The intimacy achieved by focusing on so few characters is further heightened by the novel's concentrated setting, with almost all the action taking place within the confines of The Ivy House. What was once "a murmuring haven" for Toby and his cousins to spend idyllic, parent-free summers has suddenly morphed into a claustrophobic hotbed of sickness and suspicion; of paranoia and painful discoveries.

French's work has always boasted a strong sense of place, from the ghost estate of Broken Harbour to the boarding school corridors of The Secret Place. Here, the ramshackle home, dating back to Toby's Anglo-Irish great-grandparents, also speaks to the Irish Gothic novel big-house tradition, which has enjoyed excellent revivals recently in books such as Jess Kidd's The Hoarder and Paraic O'Donnell's The Maker of Swans and The House on Vesper Sands.

Given its single setting and limited cast, it is somewhat surprising the novel manages to span over 500 pages. Critics have previously pointed to French's tendency to stretch her material a little far. Then again, given the multiple crimes under investigation, the combination of present-day mysteries and resurrected teenage memories, as well as the philosophical musings on identity and fate, the tome's bulk is just about justified.

Irish female crime writers - from Liz Nugent to Sinéad Crowley - now dominate a previously male-heavy genre. French's last novel also saw a female 'Murder Squad' member take centre stage. In The Wych Elm, it is Susanna who draws her cousins' attention to the gender - and class - politics at work, suggesting Toby's identity may be less defined by 'luck' than by the simple fact of him being a middle-class, straight, white male.

The Greeks, Uncle Hugo tells us, believed a wych elm grew at the gates of the Underworld. This fine novel may be about a nightmarish secret lurking inside the trunk of a tree but it is also about the secrets inside all of us which, if we are lucky, will remain hidden, even from ourselves.

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