Penguin UK Viking|21 February 2019 |517 pages|e-book |Review copy|4*
The Wych Elm by Tana French is a long book and it starts very slowly, so it’s a book to savour rather than one to rush through. I was engrossed in this psychological thriller, a standalone book, as dark family secrets gradually came to light. It isn’t a page-turner and yet it is full of mystery and suspense about a family in crisis.
Toby Hennessy, the narrator, is twenty eight. He’s a good looking and charming young man from an affluent and supportive family who love him. He has had an easy start to life, everything had just seemed to fall into place for him. He works for an art gallery in the centre of Dublin, where he does the gallery’s PR and is thinking of getting a place together with his girl friend, Melissa. But then his luck and his life change dramatically when he is brutally attacked by burglars in his flat, leaving him in a terrible state, physically and psychologically damaged. The first mystery is to find out why he was burgled and so savagely beaten. The police investigation doesn’t get very far and Toby is left to solve it himself – for a while at least.
He then learns that his Uncle Hugo has terminal cancer and he and Melissa go to stay with him at the Hennessy family home, the Ivy House, to care for Hugo and to recuperate. Their large family – his parents, his aunts and uncles, and his cousins, Susanna and Leo – descend on Ivy House for lunch every Sunday and one Sunday afternoon Susanna’s young children discover a human skull in the hollow trunk of a wych elm, the biggest tree in the garden.
So there is a second mystery to be solved – and one that is slowly unravelled taking Toby back to his teenage years and he realises that there was so much going on in his friends’ and cousins’ lives that he had just not known about. It’s as though he was cocooned within his own comfortable bubble, totally unaware of the bullying and struggles that other people had to face. He really finds it hard to come to terms with this. Much of the rest of the book is made up of long conversations with his uncle and cousins and the police investigations.
The Wych Elm is an intense book, digging deeply into the nature of privilege, luck and empathy, with the dynamics of relationship, with memory and coming to terms with the past and with death. There were times when I wasn’t sure just how reliable Toby was as a narrator and then I wondered which of the other characters were telling the truth. The account of Hugo’s illness, the way he copes with it and his family’s reactions are completely convincing. This is a nuanced book, with several complex layers and when I wasn’t reading it I was still thinking about it. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
My thanks to the publishers, Penguin UK, for my review copy via NetGalley.