For me it all goes back to that night, the dark corroded hinge between before and after, the slipped-in sheet of trick glass that tints everything on one side in its own murky colours and leaves everything on the other luminous and untouchable.
One night changes everything for Toby. A brutal attack leaves him traumatised, unsure even of the person he used to be. He seeks refuge at the family’s ancestral home, the Ivy House, filled with cherished memories of wild-strawberry summers and teenage parties with his cousins.
But not long after Toby’s arrival, a discovery is made. A skull, tucked neatly inside the old wych elm in the garden.
As detectives begin to close in, Toby is forced to examine everything he thought he knew about his family, his past, and himself.
A spellbinding standalone from a literary writer who turns the crime genre inside out, The Wych Elm asks what we become, and what we’re capable of, if we no longer know who we are.
The Wych Elm focuses on Toby, who after suffering a brutal attack, learns his uncle has terminal brain cancer, and goes to stay with him to take care of him. Whilst there, Toby and his family, become embroiled in one heck of a mystery, when a human skull is found in their 200-year-old Wych Elm tree.
I quite enjoyed this book, it delivered a story that had interesting characters and an appealing mystery. This was my first Tana French novel, and I had read great things about her books, so I was really excited to dive in.
The actual mystery-plot from the book’s blurb didn’t begin until around 30%. The book had been mildly interesting up until this point, but it did feel like it took too long to get to the start of the central storyline. There was a sluggishness throughout the book, as at times, the prose was rather long-winded. There was too much detail to irrelevant sub-plots, and an overly descriptive history to certain parts. But once the mystery and plot got going, I really liked it.
I loved the setting of this novel. The story primarily takes place in the Ivy House, which was atmospheric, as if the old, family house had stood the test of time, and like the Wych Elm, was witness to all the badness and growth that occurred.
I didn’t love or loathe any characters, but the type of story this is, I don’t think many (or any) were meant to be likeable; it was as if everyone was the bad guy. The majority of the characters were interesting to keep me engaged with the book, as there was sort of a family-drama feel to the story. The main character, Toby, who narrates the story, was a haunted character, dealing with demons, he may or may not have deserved. His cousins, Susanna and Leon, were also intriguing. I enjoyed the dynamic French established between the three cousins, one minute they were thick as thieves reminiscing about the past, and then the next minute it was like a Mexican standoff.
Additionally, I was impressed with how uncomfortable I was with the police detectives. At one point, I was horrified for Toby, not because I cared about him, but because of how effective French wrote her leading detectives; Rafferty and Kerr, who certainly were intimidating.
I found the climax of the novel to be really engaging, and the conclusion to the mystery was fully developed. I was quite satisfied with how the story was ending, but it suddenly went limp. I’m still sort of stumped with the ending. In one way, I see it ties into concluding the character development of Toby, but in another way, I think the story continued on beyond the point where it should have finished, where it could have ended on a dramatic cliff hanger which would leave the reader breathless, so to speak. Instead, the ending was kind of underwhelming, when it could have finished off with impact.
Overall, the Wych Elm had some problems, but it was, otherwise, an enjoyable read. I read the book within 3 days, and I have decided to rate this 4 stars, however, I would have preferred to go for 3.5 stars. I can’t forget how gruelling some parts of the story were, due to how longwinded, and at times, irrelevant some details were. Nonetheless, the characters in the story were the strongest element, as they were thoroughly developed and were interesting enough to keep me engaged. As well, the story was very intriguing and I was excited to get to the bottom of the mysteries, and see how each character’s story ended.
As already stated, this was my first Tana French novel, and I am now keen to read her other books, because I did like this one, and would recommend it.
The Wych Elm by Tana French
Published February 2019
*Thank you kindly to Netgalley and the publishers for providing me with an e-copy, in exchange for this honest review.