The Wych Elm by Tana French
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.
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