One of the key goals of my trip to the US was to buy a copy of Tana French’s latest novel, The Witch Elm, and get it back to the UK (not easy with a very big hardback book and a very limited baggage allowance). As readers of this blog will know, I am a huge fan of Tana French’s literary crime writing, and am always trying to recruit people to my cult (my success rate is high). Her first six novels were all focused on detectives working in the Dublin Murder Squad, making The Witch Elm her first stand-alone, although it retains the Dublin setting. Our narrator, Toby, has lived a life that he describes as ‘lucky’ and we might describe as ‘privileged’; as a white, middle-class, straight man, he has no structural barriers to overcome until the moment two burglars break into his flat and beat him brutally, leaving him dealing with neurological disabilities. While still trying to get back on his feet, he goes to stay with his dying uncle Hugo, and reunites with his two cousins, Susanna and Leon. But when a skeleton is discovered in the wych elm in Hugo’s garden, Toby realises that his gilded past might not have been as fortunate as he thought.
While the quality of French’s writing shows no sign of diminishing, I felt that The Witch Elm ranked alongside my least favourite of the Dublin Murder Squad novels, rather than with the best; in theme and accomplishment, it’s most similar to French’s debut, In the Woods. One thing that was lacking for me was the interplay of genre and literary conventions that marks out the most brilliant of French’s novels; by discarding the police procedural elements, French ends up writing a much more straightforward literary novel that is more reminiscent of The Secret History and its many imitators than crime fiction. I missed this tension, which French handles so well – although after reading her first six novels multiple times, I felt that I could almost read the minds of the policemen who interrogate Toby and his family, and found myself wondering which strategies and masks they were using, which was fun 🙂
Moreover, although The Witch Elm’s message about privilege is powerful, I felt it was a bit too clearly spelt out, especially near the end of the novel, when Toby is carefully lectured by Susanna and Leon. Earlier scenes, such as Toby’s attitude to the ‘urban youth’ whose art he is meant to be promoting as part of his job – he sees the whole endeavour as a politically correct racket – make the point about his character much more subtly. Nevertheless, the dissolution of Toby’s very self as he realises he can no longer rely on being seen as a ‘blank slate’ – that he is now being judged by his stammer, his twitches and his pauses – is very well done. Toby can’t understand who he is now he is seen by society as a ‘disabled man’ rather than simply as a person; he’s lost his ability to imagine himself as anything he wants to be, and now can’t imagine himself as anything at all.
Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before The Start Of Time combines the artificial wombs of Helen Sedgwick’s The Growing Season with the single-parent babies of Angela Chadwick’s XX to present a series of vignettes across three generations that consider how both new technologies and changing social norms transform child-bearing and child-rearing. This short book is deceptively easy to read, but I felt like little of it was sticking with me; books that jump forward in time like this often end up making the characters’ children and grandchildren into no more than a list of names, a problem that was also obvious in Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us. I liked the fact that Charnock mixed together a series of advances rather than focusing on a single ‘what-if’ scenario, but she didn’t really give herself the space to consider these alternative realities in enough depth.
I came across Robin Oliveira’s My Name Is Mary Sutter, a historical novel about a midwife wanting to train as a surgeon who ends up nursing wounded soldiers in DC in the midst of the American Civil War, on Claire’s blog. The novel is not only hard-hitting but almost tragic, in the Greek sense; Oliveira seems determined to force Mary to a point where she literally has only herself to rely on, where she must completely re-examine the initial determination to receive medical training that drove her to this point. As with Lissa Evans’s Old Baggage, I enjoyed reading about a female protagonist who is primarily motivated by ambition and idealism rather than by love, friendship and family, although Oliveira also emphasises Mary’s emotional ties. There are a few annoying tropes -[highlight for spoiler] why does Mary’s unambitious and feminine sister, Jenny, have to compete with her over a man, get married, do nothing, and then die horribly in childbirth[end spoiler] – but the vitality of Mary’s character pulls the novel through.
What next, now I’m sadly back in the UK? I’m enthralled by Sarah Perry’s Melmoth, which I have to call a Calvinist ghost story (thanks to Rebecca for handing on her proof copy!) and am slowly enjoying Ursula Le Guin’s classic The Left Hand of Darkness, while I found Elisa Lodato’s An Unremarkable Body to be an unsatisfactory mix of literary experimentation and chick lit. For peaceful, contemplative bedtime reading, I’m rediscovering some Michael Morpurgo favourites from childhood – Kensuke’s Kingdom and King of the Cloud Forests – and for more unsettling dreams, I re-read a book that haunted my teenage years, John Marsden’s Letters from the Inside.