An alpha male’s sense of self is shattered in French’s captivating standalone novel.
The screenwriter Steven Moffat once said that his hit show Sherlockwas “not a crime drama, but a drama about a man who solves crimes”. The distinction would work well for Tana French’s acclaimed series of novels featuring the fictional Dublin murder squad (soon to be a TV series, scripted by Sarah Phelps). It’s a source of bafflement to me that French has not yet been nominated for a major literary award, and I can’t help feeling that she almost certainly would have been if her characters weren’t detectives. Her writing is poetic and scalpel-sharp, rich in allusions to literature, myth, history and contemporary politics; her exploration of character is full of insight. But there are murders to be solved, so her books – though garlanded with critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic – have tended to be labelled as genre fiction.
French’s first standalone novel, The Wych Elm, might change that. Leaving the murder squad behind, she flips the perspective of a police procedural to regard the process from the other side, through a narrator who is, at various points, potential victim, suspect and witness. In the process, she carries out a forensic, and timely, examination of the nature of privilege and empathy.
Toby Hennessy is in his late 20s, good-looking, with a beautiful girlfriend and a job in art PR. His charmed life is built on the solid foundation of an affluent, middle-class Dublin family and an expensive education. Toby is so shaped by advantages that he barely notices; in the opening sentence he describes himself as “basically, a lucky person”. Then his luck runs out. During a break-in at his flat, he is beaten and left for dead. A head injury leaves him physically and mentally impaired. He recovers enough to function, but his memory is patchy, and his sense of himself and his place in the world has shattered; he has pitched from alpha male to object of pity.
You’d think this would be inciting incident enough for a novel, but there are more bombshells in store for Toby: his beloved Uncle Hugo has inoperable brain cancer. Since Toby is not fit for work, it is decided by his extended family that he should help Hugo by moving into the grand old family home where he and his cousins spent childhood summers and where Hugo now lives alone: “The Ivy House, twilight hide-and-seek among the moths and the silver birches, wild-strawberry picnics and gingerbread Christmases, endless teenage parties with everyone lying on the grass gazing up at the stars…”
For a few weeks Toby, his girlfriend, Melissa, and Hugo settle into a peaceful, self-contained routine, until this, too, is upended by the discovery of a skull in the old wych elm in the garden, and a decade-old secret is thrust into the light. The biggest problem for Toby is that his injury makes him an unreliable narrator, even to himself. He no longer knows whether he can trust his memories of the events of that summer 10 years earlier, and he is no more certain of the version told him by his cousins Leon and Susanna.
French has said in interviews that she is most interested in mysteries where “whodunnit” is not the biggest question, and The Wych Elm foregrounds this idea. While there is a murderer to be uncovered, her main preoccupation is the bigger mystery of the self, and how our fixed sense of who we are can be so easily unmoored by events. “My own life blurred and smeared in front of my eyes; my outlines had been scrubbed out of existence (and how easily it had been done, how casually, one absent swipe in passing) so that I bled away at every margin into the world.”
There is little action in the novel, except at the beginning and end; most of the plot unfolds through dialogue, which is one of French’s greatest strengths. She has always had a pitch-perfect ear for the shifting power dynamics in conversation, particularly the police interrogation. Here, Toby is both questioner and questioned, and the nuances of that power play are so cleverly captured that the reader’s allegiance shifts constantly in response. The narrative is slower than in the procedural novels, but the rewards are greater; the big questions linger in the mind long after the superficial ones are resolved. The Wych Elm should cement French’s place in the first rank of literary novelists.