Google cannot tell me whether this book is called The Wych Elm or The Witch Elm, but you get the point.
Twentysomething Toby works as a PR-operative for an art gallery somewhere in Dublin. After a night out with friends his apartment is burglarised; Toby catches them in the act and is clobbered on the head with a heavy object. When he wakes up in hospital he is no longer the same. He has a limp, his face droops and he can no longer remember words. But it’s the mental strain that takes its biggest toll. Depressed, Toby holes up in his apartment until his cousin Susannah calls. She tells him their beloved uncle Hugo is dying of brain cancer. Hugo lives alone in the ancestral home and needs someone to take care of him. As Toby’s got little else on his hands he decides to take her up on it. At first, things go well.Toby seems to be doing better and Hugo loves the company. But then something mysterious is found in the garden that brings in the police as well as a lot of unpleasant memories from when they were young.
So here’s the thing: I don’t get the ending.
I mean, I get the story that French is trying to tell me, but I don’t get why that is the story. A plot twist is added somewhere near the end. That is a pretty common occurrence in the genre; it can provide a wonderful kick if well-executed, but that’s a pretty big if and I’m not sure this qualifies. Mostly, it pissed me off and I don’t think in a way it was supposed to.
French is a wonderful writer, deftly straddling the line between literature and crime fiction (a lot of authors lay claim to that, but with the exception of French, Laura Lippman and Kate Atkinson, very few authors manage it). Her books are full of rich characters, artfully crafted mysteries and beautifully flowing language. There’s always something I don’t like about them, though. Broken Harbour was too depressing, The Likeness too unlikely, and Frank Mackey is just a dick. Here, for me, it was the ending. It felt unnecessary, but then again French does nothing without reason so I’m stuck on it. I’m sure she has her reasons, but they’re beyond me.
Barring the ending I actually really liked the book. Toby’s struggle to cope after his attack is all the more frustrating because it is realistic. So is the fact that he’s not particularly likable; he often comes across as whiney and all the other characters let him know just how privileged he was, something that seems to surprise him anew every time they tell him. The central mystery is well crafted, though I was a bit put off by the obvious link to who put Bella in the wych elm (which has nothing to do with this book except French obviously thought it was cool and decided to put it in her book; there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a bit on the nose), though I do think that if you hide a body in a tree the home owners will smell it even if the tree isn’t anywhere near the house. Dead bodies stink.
Ultimately, I love French’s work, and I’ll read the next thing she writes as soon as it comes out (this was the last book of hers I hadn’t yet read). But this one, to me, was not her best, and that is mainly due to the bewildering ending. Still, I have high hopes for the next installment, and the book did stay with me after I finished it, which is an achievement of its own. For most thrillers, I forget about them as soon as I finish them and French has never let me do that. That, in itself, shows how much better than the majority she is.