I have a few disclaimers to make before I jump into this review.
Firstly, I'm a massive fan of Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series and so had high expectations of this standalone novel.
Secondly, when I was younger, I was rushed to hospital with a head injury and had surgery.
Thirdly, two of my close relatives have had brain haemorrhages.
Usually the second and third points would be irrelevant to a review but I can't entangle how much my discomfort with this book is related to my own personal history with the injuries, conditions and recoveries that are central to the tale.
Toby, our main character, is the epitome of an unreliable narrator. After a violent attack, he is left trying to piece together his personality and parts of his personal history. His inner psyche is a shifting, precarious entity that lies just outwith his and the readers' reach. We stumble alongside him as he tries to determine who he was, who he is and who he has the potential to become.
Returning to the Ivy House to live with his terminally ill uncle, the discovery of a skull, lends urgency to Toby's questions about identity, personality and memory.
This novel discusses the nature of good and evil, moral ambiguity, and who gets to choose when and how justice is dispensed. It's obsessed with the seemingly small tipping points that can fracture a life path and send it skittering into dark corners or alternatively bathe it in light and luck.
The problem is that if a book poses big questions, we could be forgiven for expecting some big answers and arguably, that's where The Wych Elm disappoints. There are no big reveals.
Yes, the identity of the murderer may take some readers by surprise but it's more likely they'll have figured it out before Toby.
From the moment, his uncle Hugo sends wild child Zach out on a treasure hunt, Hugo's eventual role is also well-signposted. Toby can blame his head injury for his inability to forsee the inevitable but most readers are left waiting for him to catch up.
The Wych Elm can be perceptive, uncomfortable and devastating in its portrayal of someone struggling to adjust after a head injury. The bustle of hospital, the constant grasping for missing remembrances, the worry that who you are can be irrevocably changed in one moment, the question of who we are if our memories are smudged out of existence - these are all captured in aching detail. And as someone who has lived part of that experience, I often had to take a break from this unflinching look at a head injury and its aftermath.
However trusting readers to a narrator whose defining trait is that he cannot grasp the intricacies of what is unfolding around him creates a choppy read.
With no answers to the big questions it poses, no satisfying conclusion where justice is served and no definitive view on right and wrong, the reader can be forgiven for being left as muddled and confused as Toby.
Crime novels constantly tussle with questions of agency, retribution, rehabilitation and punishment. There's a regular debate on whether all ends need to be neatly tied and justice dispensed for a novel to be satisfying. Can a book that embraces inequity, uneven pacing, chance and injustice be viewed as complete or will it always appear an exercise in messy futility?
From one perspective, the characters, themes and crimes of The Wych Elm can seem as insubstantial as the dust motes dancing round the Ivy House. By its end, there are three people dead, one locked up and a feeling that justice hasn't been served. It hasn't even been recognised.
Others might relate to a world that randomly distributes punishments, rewards, illnesses and absolutions.
When the author opted for a narrator as unreliable as Toby, they surrendered the certainty that is the mainstay of many crime novels. Glimpsing plots and personalities through the prism of a fractured mind, could only ever create a fragmented whole. Undoubtedly some readers will fall through those cracks and be left echoing Toby's frustration over what could have been. Others will be awed by the representation of how fickle life can be.
By Sylvia Hehir
Sea Change by Sylvia Hehir is a beautifully written YA novel that evokes a real sense of setting and is perfectly targeted to its YA audience.
Although it starts with the discovery of a body, arguably it is the teenage themes – of identity;
responsibility; friendship - that take centre stage.
The sensitive portrayal of the demands on a teen carer is welcome and laudable.
Crime buffs may be disappointed by the author’s decision to position the murder and kidnap as almost secondary to the other dramas that pre-occupy the teen protagonists. But arguably that decision displays a truth about teenage priorities.
In Alex, Angus, Daniel and Caitlin, the novel has a cast of likeable characters that the reader is reluctant to leave.
Breakers is a joy of a book - which is an odd description for a novel with a strong thread of social conscience and an unflinching view of those who inhabit the fringes of society. But, the themes and the reader are in such capable hands that on completion, after putting the book aside, the reader is left with the memory of a strong tale well-told. The shimmering injustice, of a society that pushes people to the outskirts and to their limits, remains.
That isn't to say that Breakers is a worthy, morality tale. It is tense and taut as it throws the reader into a world of contrasts. A world where teenage Tyler is finding it increasingly difficult to survive. It's a place where his brother Barry is a housebreaker; his mum is an addict; his brittle, elder sister is vulnerable and younger sister, Bean, seems to face an equally bleak future.
When one of their burglaries goes wrong, they find themselves wanted by one of Edinburgh's toughest crime families. Populated by realistic characters who career towards sometimes brutal ends, there is a sense of sickening inevitability about some of their fates yet it never slips into predictability. It can be touched by whimsy from Tyler slipping into houses to play their records to Flick and Bean clambering the ramparts of the castle.
Despite a well-meaning teacher and a shrewd policewoman, Tyler realises the fate of his family may rest on his decisions and actions.
As the 'crimes' mount up, there is a haunting realisation that the real crime is how communities ignore lives curtailed by poverty, abuse and addiction; and how our infrastructure and institutions refuse to acknowledge and accommodate their lived reality.
The author deftly teases out the similarities and differences at both ends of the social spectrum but it is his characters who live on the margins who linger. He refuses to let Tyler and Bean slip into clichés and stereotypes and they emerge, vaguely triumphant, to hold out the promise of hope.