Tana French's new novel proves that yes, you can run out of luck...

Life is unfurling gloriously when things go wrong, writes Michele Magwood of The Wych Elm

17 March 2019 - 00:00 By Michele Magwood

The Wych Elm ****
Tana French, Penguin Viking, R290

Tana French has been described as "a literary novelist who just happens to write about murder", much like Donna Tartt and Kate Atkinson. Her books have an intense sense of place, in particular, houses.

The American author, who has lived in Ireland for close to 30 years, often sets her disturbing stories in slightly threatening houses and buildings, such as a dilapidated country estate named Whitethorn House in The Likeness, a patrician girl's boarding house in The Secret Place or, in Broken Harbour, a "ghost estate", one of the half-built, half-inhabited McMansion developments thrown up in Ireland and never completed when the property market crashed. These books all form part of her Dublin Murder Squad series which has gained something of a cult following.

French's latest novel, The Wych Elm, is a standalone from the Dublin Squad books, a hefty mystery centring on a beautiful old Georgian house in the Dublin suburbs called the Ivy House.

The narrator, Toby Hennessy, is a bright, good-looking, up-and-coming young man working as a PR for a hip gallery. Lovely girlfriend, a great bunch of friends, life is unfurling gloriously before him. "I've always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person," he says. Until the luck runs out.

One night intruders break into Toby's flat and beat him to within an inch of his life. He is left partially brain damaged and disabled, his privileged life smashed. He takes refuge in the Ivy House, where his uncle still lives.

It is a place replete with memories of his happy childhood, and he hopes to heal as he cares for his ailing uncle and reconnects with his extended family. But one day a skull is found in the old elm tree in the garden, the police close in and Toby's life, as he thought he knew it, begins to unravel. @michelemagwood