July Book Group - The Wych Elm by Tana French

SarasaSarasa Shipmate
July's choice for the Ship's Book Group is The Wych Elm by Tana French. It's partly detective novel, with a very unreliable narrator and partly, as the linked review says, explores 'the bruised relationship between the world and the self: whether our personalities are remade by trauma, or revealed.'
One of the books I most enjoyed last year, I'm looking forward to a re-read and discussing it with you all.

Comments

  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    I picked up a copy last night , so I am in. They sell it in Canada under the title "The Witch Elm."
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    Glad you are joining in @Caissa. I looked up what 'wych' meant and apparently it's supple or pliant, as in weak and wicker. The spelling witch seems an alternative, but doesn't seem to have any thing to do with witches as in wicca.
    I don't know that I've ever knowingly seen a wych elm (Dutch elm disease killed off most elms in the UK), but one of my favourite local pubs has that name.
  • MiliMili Shipmate
    I will join in. In Melbourne we have just been put on tighter lock down again and can only catch up with one person outside to exercise locally at the moment, so outside of zoom meetings I will have plenty of reading time.
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    I hope all goes well in Melbourne, Mili.
  • MiliMili Shipmate
    Thanks Caissa
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    I was reading an article this week that more people are reading for longer due to lockdown and that crime novels are the reading matter of choice. This book fits right in there.
    Hope lockdown isn't too much of a pain for you @Mili .
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    Parenthetically, I have read 80 books to date this year.
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    About 120 pages in. Enjoying it immensely.
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    Finished it this afternoon. Looking forward to the discussion. How are others progressing?
  • MiliMili Shipmate
    Thanks guys. Apart from the anxiety of the disease spreading here now (which most of the ship has already experienced) I am doing okay. I hope life goes back to something resembling normal without risk of the virus one day soon though! I don't think I've quite read 80 books as I read a lot of news (too much) and non-fiction long reads online too. I am about two fifths of the way through the latest book club book. The main character reminds me too much of someone who would have caught Covid and given to all his family at Sunday lunch (pre injuries) not due to malice, but due to carelessness because he always expected to be lucky!
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    I'm still re-reading it, but will ready with some questions on the 20th. I
  • I've just noticed this thread (new to the Ship so still finding my way around!). I think I'm a bit late for July's book choice (although I'm still tempted to read it as it sounds intriguing) but hopefully I'll be able to join in with August's. I love books!
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    Hi @Chasing Shadows , welcome to the book group. Threads tend to stay open for a while so there is still time to read The Wych Elm if you fancy. I'll be posting some fairly open ended questions about it tomorrow.
    This is the link to the thread for suggestions for books this year. Feel free to suggest something. As you can see we have a few gaps towards the end of the year.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    I'm still in the middle of my re-read of this, so may well post some extra questions later. Feel free to add your questions.

    1. How reliable a narrator do you think Toby is? How much impact does his brain injury have on his reliability?/b]

    2. What made a big impression on me the first time I read the book was the plotting, the way French takes her time to develop the story. Did you like that, or did you want her to get on with it?

    3. The other characters, Leon, Suzanne, Hugo, Melissa. Any that stand out?

    4. What did you make of Toby and Melissa's relationship. Was it as wonderful in the beginning as Toby claimed it was. why did she finally leave?

    Is Toby lucky, and if he is how much is due to his own charm and how much to his position in life?
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    edited July 21
    1. If one takes Toby as an unreliable narrator than one is not sure what one should believe or not. I think we need to take him at face value unless we want to begin to pick and choose our reality. Although much of the plot seemed improbable and could have been one big dream cum the infamous Dallas season.
    2. I think the book should have been about half the length that it was but she seems to like writing long books.
    3. I like Hugo, who wouldn't want Hugo as your kindly uncle. With a background in history, I could relate to his genealogical interests. I was never able to warm to Leon. His brokenness seemed to lead to him inflicting pain on others. Suzanne did not make a convincing mother. University should have been her path. Melissa had tons of empathy possibly originating from er alcoholic mother.
    4. I think her empathy became exhausted negotiating the complex relationship of the cousins.
    5. I don't believe in luck. Toby had a privileged position and he knew how to manipulate it for his benefit.

    I read Normal People after this which made an interesting Irish contrast.
  • Sarasa wrote: »
    Hi @Chasing Shadows , welcome to the book group. Threads tend to stay open for a while so there is still time to read The Wych Elm if you fancy. I'll be posting some fairly open ended questions about it tomorrow.
    This is the link to the thread for suggestions for books this year. Feel free to suggest something. As you can see we have a few gaps towards the end of the year.
    Thanks Sarasa. I will see if I can get hold of it in time. If not, I will join in from August. I like the sound of another Attwood (in September). Like many no doubt I have read The Handmaid's Tale. I do have a couple of suggestions which I will add to the thread you linked to and see what people think.
  • MiliMili Shipmate
    1. How reliable a narrator do you think Toby is? How much impact does his brain injury have on his reliability?


    I never felt that Toby was lying or deliberately making things up - though he did have a history of that and could be very convincing. The story is told by him a few years after he was attacked, so his memory issues seem to have improved a lot as well. However he had a definite bias. He knew that Dominic was mistreating his cousins, even if not the full extent of what was happening, but downplayed and then ignored the treatment as he saw both Leon and Susanna as over dramatic and could not relate having not been bullied or sexually harassed. Even as an adult he did not really seem to understand their viewpoints. This was also reflected when he downplayed the action of the man who he chased off from harassing Melissa. He couldn't understand that the man was a real threat and menace to Melissa and not just a bit annoying or even flattering by paying her attention.

    He also paints himself as a good and nice person (as I'm sure we all would) and then it could be jarring to find out that he bullied others and stirred up trouble with false emails while at school. He also downplayed his role in the fraud at the gallery and I'm not sure how accurate his side of events was there given he got away with it all and Tiernan got fired. Did more happen that led to Tiernan being so vengeful?

    Also his murder of Rafferty was sickening and a total over reaction. It seems that someone who was as Toby portrayed himself would not be capable of such an act. Punching him once, maybe, but a sustained violent attack seemed extreme, even if we take into account PTSD from the attack on himself.

    2. What made a big impression on me the first time I read the book was the plotting, the way French takes her time to develop the story. Did you like that, or did you want her to get on with it?

    I liked the twists and turns, but wanted her to get on with it. I think it could have been edited to 350 pages without losing any of the story. There was too much description and too much introspection on Toby's part.

    3. The other characters, Leon, Suzanne, Hugo, Melissa. Any that stand out?

    The three cousins and their relationships seemed to be the core of the story. Melissa and Hugo just got dragged into their mess. I felt really sorry for Hugo, but then maybe he felt bad for the lack of supervision when he cared for them as children. However what sort of parents leave their kids with one sibling every year while they go off on holiday? Hugo didn't seem to mind, but maybe they took advantage of his kind, easy going nature.

    4. What did you make of Toby and Melissa's relationship. Was it as wonderful in the beginning as Toby claimed it was. why did she finally leave?


    I think there relationship was pretty strong given Melissa stayed and helped Toby a lot after the head injury and Toby was willing to break up and let her move on then if she wanted. However as mentioned above, he didn't seem to take her problems seriously - would Toby have stuck around and been so caring and helpful if Melissa was the one with an acquired brain injury and had become less physically attractive? I think she finally left because not only was Toby a possible murderer, but he kept ignoring her concerns about trying to investigate the crimes himself. He also had become dependent on xanax and pain killers and perhaps she realised she was reenacting her relationship with her alcoholic mother with Toby and realised that was not what she wanted.

    Is Toby lucky, and if he is how much is due to his own charm and how much to his position in life?

    Toby was lucky both due to circumstance, his natural personality and good looks. Even at the end he was able to get the best lawyers and medical treatments due to his family having money and selling the Ivy House to pay for it. Something he felt a little bad about, but still seemed to take for granted. In the end though, his lack of conscience about lying or twisting the truth to get his was eventually caught up with him.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    1. How reliable a narrator do you think Toby is? How much impact does his brain injury have on his reliability?
    The first time I read it I assumed that Toby was a deliberate unreliable narrator, that he was either telling us things that weren't true, or just wasn't telling us things full stop. This time I think he genuinely has forgotten some things because of his injury, but a lot of it is due to his assumption that everyone else is fine if he is fine. Several characters mention to him that he forgets things he doesn't want to know about and always has done.

    2. What made a big impression on me the first time I read the book was the plotting, the way French takes her time to develop the story. Did you like that, or did you want her to get on with it?
    I've read all French's Dublin Murder Mysteries and she does like dialogue and developing her characters slowly. Although I appreciated the way it was about 30% of the way through the book till the body appeared the first time I read it, this time I just wanted her to get on with it. The middle section when Toby plays detective and Melissa finally walks out, I skimmed this time

    3. The other characters, Leon, Suzanne, Hugo, Melissa. Any that stand out?
    I'm not really sure I got a handle on Leon, he seemed a bundle of nervous tics and not a lot else. Suzanne was a bit like the reverse of the femme fatale (temptress) of a Dashiel Hammet novel. She looked good and wholesome and was an attentive mother, rather than a sexily dressed seductress, but she had nerves of steel and was just as determined to get her way. Hugo seemed a lot like Toby in that he ignored things he didn't like. If he knew about the body from the start which seems likely I wonder why he'd never mentioned it to the cousins, even if he didn't turn them in.

    4. What did you make of Toby and Melissa's relationship. Was it as wonderful in the beginning as Toby claimed it was. why did she finally leave?
    Toby is quite dismissive of Melissa's mum as a bit of a drunk, when it is obvious she was an alcoholic with serious problems and that Melissa had been her carer from and early age. She maybe saw that Toby was in denial about his problems and not only didn't want to end up being his carer maybe she saw that under his charm and protestations that he wasn't a bully he could sometimes be rather unpleasant.

    Is Toby lucky, and if he is how much is due to his own charm and how much to his position in life?
    I think most of Toby's luck isn't of his own making. He's a white middle-class straight man, who is good looking and well spoken. The charm he may well have had to work at, but he obviously had the foundations of it in his personality.
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    Such a good book. It is a shame it got so little traction. I commend it to all as one of the most interesting books I have read this year.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    I agree, it's a shame not more people joined in. I wasn't sure that I enjoyed it quite so much the second time, but I admire the way French organises and plots her work.
  • I wanted to join in but lockdown came just before I got my mitts on a copy. This thread will be worth a reread once it becomes available.
  • MaramaMarama Shipmate
    I'm sorry haven't got round to the detailed questions but I did find it an interesting book, and very cleverly plotted. It was a long book, but it never dragged, at least not for me, and I wasn't too worried that the body wasn't found till nearly half way through.

    I thought Toby's reaction to his attack and injury was very well done - the sudden sense that life was not easy, that so much had to be re-learned, so many assumptions gone. Toby and Hugo do have similarities in temperament, usually letting things slide. I found Hugo an attractive character, although he may have known far more than he was saying, largely because of his openness to the younger generation. It also occurred to me that having Toby and Melissa (and the others) around so much, and the general determination to live life companionably, was not a bad way to spend one's last months with a terminal disease.
  • MiliMili Shipmate
    I felt bad his last weeks were ruined by the discovery of the body, but then Toby theorised that Hugo set that up in order to take the blame, as he had witnessed the murder, unbeknownst to Suzanne and Leon.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    Sorry you didn't get hold of a copy @ArachnidinElmet. Hope you manage to get one soon. The charity bookshop in which I volunteer has one on the shelfs at the moment, so there are copies out there. PM me if you want me to see if it is still there next time I'm in and I can send it to you.
    I think Hugo must have known. Not just from having seen the cousins and maybe not being sure which of the three were involved, but there must have been a smell.
  • That's very kind of you @Sarasa . I work in a library and have just gone back to work so once the queue has gone down (and my current tbr pile has gone down) I'll take it out from there.
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