Monday, 17 December 2018

Book review: The Wych Elm, Tana French (2018)

I gave this crime thriller a solid crack but it was just so slow. So long. Interminable scenes where the recovering Toby is trying to talk with the police or where he tries to get his life in order. For some reason this book is also being marketed as ‘The Witch Elm’. I couldn’t work out the reason for having two different titles for the same book.

The story as far as I got (about 16 percent of the way through) was that Toby is a PR staffer at a small commercial art gallery. His boss sets in train a show with artists who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and Toby finds out that another employee has been making some of the paintings on the sly. The manager finds out and Toby is not sacked but on the day he has a tense interview with his boss he goes out drinking, gets home on foot but still drunk, and then is woken up in the middle of the night by two burglars.

The two men beat him senseless and Toby ends up in hospital, lucky to be alive. The police come around to question him but he doesn’t tell them about the problem he had had at the gallery. They don’t know who robbed Toby and take him home on the day he is discharged but he can’t tell them what they need to know. He stupidly keeps the debacle that took place at the gallery from them. I couldn’t work out how this would work in real life.

From the point of view of poetry, Toby is just not very convincing. I didn’t really understand his relationship with his drinking buddies, Sean and Declan. The constant mindless ribbing that characterises their relationship is annoying and a bit unrealistic. As though French thinks that men are just stupid bogans who think of nothing but drinking and masturbating. The scenes where Toby is alone with his mates don’t entirely convince.

And even though Toby has had his sense of self almost totally shattered by the violent attack that left him practically without life, he still manages to keep his shit together when talking with the cops who come to interview him. I don’t buy this aspect of the story. Someone who had been as thoroughly shaken up as Toby had been would have had a lot of difficulty keeping his mouth shut when asked questions about his past that he clearly knew the answers to. There is no trace of such a struggle in the book.

The way that Toby, who is apparently well-educated and aware of his surroundings, manages to make mistake after mistake is not just alarming. It seems like the writer needs these opportunities to get him into trouble so that, presumably, something hidden can be revealed. I found Toby a bit dense and unselfconscious. His stupidity, as revealed in how he reacts to the intrusion into his apartment on the night he is beaten half to death, ends up being just another indicator of general incompetence.

I found it hard to care about Toby, and quite happily gave up reading this genre bestseller. The problem that genre more broadly has with things like characterisation are fully on view here: two-dimensional people whose only purpose is to serve as vehicles that advance the plot, and a lack of concern for the preciousness of human life. Toby hardly had to be thrashed so completely by the two robbers; half of the intensity could have done the job just as well.

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