I’d read two books by this author previously – one of these blew me away while the other (although exquisitely written) had a plot I found hard to believe – so I had to think a bit before committing myself to this 500+ page read. However, I’m so glad I did.
Fans of Tana French’s Dublin Squad police procedurals should be aware this is a very different type of story – I’d describe it as a psychological drama in that it gradually reveals a dark secret within an extended family. I think it would appeal to fans of Ian Banks’s The Crow Road and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.
The mystery takes a while to get established but once it starts to unfold it becomes more and more gripping.
The story’s told by Toby Hennessy, a privileged, good-looking, happy-go-lucky young man who’s never really had to question himself until a violent break-in leaves him hospitalised and traumatised. While recovering he goes to stay at Ivy House to help his Uncle Hugo who’s dying. A lot of Toby’s childhood memories were formed at Ivy House with his cousins Leon and Susanna.
The first third of the book introduces us to the characters who are vividly portrayed. There are some beautiful descriptions of the house, witty lines and thought-provoking observations:
“It’s taken me this long to start thinking about what luck can be, how smoothly and deliciously deceptive, how relentlessly twisted and knotted in its own hidden places, and how lethal.”
It becomes clear that Leon (who’s gay) and Susanna (who as a teenager went from “untroublesome” reclusive to wild child and back) had a difficult time at school which doesn’t match Toby’s recollection of events – but then because of his head injury chunks of his memory are missing.
While playing in the garden Susanna’s children discover a skeleton in the Wych Elm. A police investigation begins and the body is identified as a boy who the three of them were at school with. How did the body get there and how is it linked with their pasts?
From this point I couldn’t put the book down. The characters and their motivations were all believable and there’s a clever twist at the end.
The Wych Elm will be published by Penguin on 21st February 2019