WOW, that’s the word I’d use to sum up this sensational novel from one of my favourite authors. Tana French is an author under many people’s radar, although not so many as her Murder Squad series she has sold over 5m copies of the Dublin crime series. If you’ve not read those, go check them out, for me The Trespasser is the best.
With The Wych Elm she has written a stand along psychological thriller that’s sure to be one of the biggest books of 2019. The story opens with our lead character, Toby Hennessy, his nearly perfect girlfriend Melissa and his best mates Dec and Sean. Toby is a happy go lucky sort of chap, never had to try too hard to get what he wanted, and he has a loving circle of family, cousins and friends around him. He works in an art gallery, he drives a BMW and likes to listen to The Coronas. He is an only child, good looking and sort of drifts casually through life with the confidence of a public-school education.
Then one day his world begins to unravel. It starts when he stumbles upon the Art Gallery manager Tiernan, touching up some of the painting in an upcoming exhibition and passing them off as by an eighteen-year-old juvenile criminal, Gouger, for whom they received Arts Council Funding. They agree not to say anything, and the matter is dropped. Shortly after this discovery Toby has been out with his mates “on the lash” as they say in Dublin and stumbles home to his basement flat and crashes out. He is then woken in the middle of the night by intruders and knocked unconscious. This injury will ultimately impair his movement, his speech and his memory resulting in him taking sick leave and moving in with his uncle’s for rehabilitation. The uncle’s house, Ivy House has been the family home for generation and from here on nearly all the story takes place in or around it.
It is in this house that the skeleton is discovered which traumatises everyone involved and creates major tension amongst the family. The plot really begins to ratchet up and at no stage are you able to exactly work out who committed the crime all those years ago. The story really flows, and you don’t feel as if you are reading a book of 530 pages. Tana French captures the interactions and conversations brilliantly and smoothly. Elements of the style and relationships remind me of The Secret History or A Little Life. It is hard to imagine but it is gripping, page turning writing that you’ll drop everything to finish the book.
Toby it turns out, is a little sleaze ball and at no stage do you ever warm to him. One of the best chapters for me was the conversation between the cousins, Toby, Leon and Susanna and you are never quite sure who to believe or who committed the murder. The detective leading the case is as good as you get with Morse or Poirot, he chips away at the family on his mission to discover the murderer. If there is a TV series or film made from this story, Ciaran Hinds would be perfect for this role.
At the end, as you finish, you’ll put the book down and go “wow” what a read. Before you know it you’ll be recommending it to all your friends.