Having been an ardent follower of this author’s crime fiction in the Dublin Series, I was very excited indeed to hear she was publishing a stand-alone novel. It would be so easy to say this is different to that series but since one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about this author’s books is the fact that each one had a unique feel which sets it apart from most crime fiction series.
This book does however focus perhaps more on the psychological aspects of crime than her previous novels with a house also playing the part of centre stage.
Happy go-lucky Toby has had an easy ride of life and when things have gone wrong he has used his charm or has been rescued by a hefty dose of luck. Life is good until he is attacked by burglars in his flat and is hospitalised. The result is that Toby is broken, both mentally and physically. With his elderly uncle Hugo being in failing health the family decide that as a temporary measure Toby should move in to keep him company. This works well returning Toby to his seemingly idyllic childhood in the Irish ancestral home and his very fond memories of time spent with his two cousins under the less than watchful eye of their batchelor uncle while their parents went off and made merry over the summers of their youth.
Anyway there is Toby coming to terms with a brutal attack, the loss of ‘himself’ and at the same time staring death in the face as the cancer that has taken up residence in his uncle’s body makes the loss of this important man inevitable. Then a skull is found by his young niece and nephew in the hollow of the wych elm in the garden bringing a whole different kind of horror to their door.
This is a long book and one that has an entirely different feel to many that the term psychological sums up. It is slow moving, our chief protagonist Toby is presented as something quite easy to grasp but equal to any mystery concerning bodies stashed in a tree Toby is left to unravel the mysteries of his own past. He is forced to examine his blindness to the injustice that seemingly ravaged around him without his registering it on any level. This is a modern tale in the sense that it concentrates on the social concerns that perhaps only the privileged in life can afford to focus on. I have to admit I did struggle a little because in many ways this book is an attack on the main protagonist with his easy privileged life, son to two professionals, never a worry in his life being knocked because his life wasn’t awful. It isn’t just that he is privileged in the way that he had enough food or warmth or clothes, but his privilege is further emphasised because he wasn’t a minority in terms of his gender or his sexuality. His crime it seems is that he didn’t recognise, as a child, that others got bullied for such things. I have to admit the strident tone adopted around this strand of the story did at times cause me to question the reasoning behind it, thereby pulling me out of what is a complex and interesting story.
This is a book that truly stands outside the norms of crime fiction because it is a book about people and society and the beliefs we tell ourselves and each other. The visible and the invisible both are uncovered by Toby our narrator through his own particular journey in search of the truth.
I’d like to say a belated thank you to the publishers Penguin Books UK who allowed me to read a copy of The Wych Elm ahead of publication of this edition of 21 February 2019, although it is possible to get a copy of the same book named The Witch Elm in the UK already. Confused? Yes, me too!