The Wych Elm by Tana French is a spellbinding standalone novel which asks what we’re capable of if we no longer know who we are.
One night changes everything for Toby. He’s always led a charmed life – until a brutal attack leaves him damaged and traumatised, unsure even of the person he used to be. He seeks refuge at his family’s ancestral home, the Ivy House, filled with memories of wild-strawberry summers and teenage parties with his cousins.
But not long after Toby’s arrival, a discovery is made: a skull, tucked neatly inside the old wych elm in the garden. As detectives begin to close in, Toby is forced to examine everything he thought he knew about his family, his past, and himself.
Read on for an extract from The Wych Elm by Tana French!
The Wych Elm
I’ve always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person. I don’t mean I’m one of those people who pick multi-million-euro lotto numbers on a whim, or show up seconds too late for flights that go on to crash with no survivors. I just mean that I managed to go through life without any of the standard misfortunes you hear about. I wasn’t abused as a kid, or bullied in school; my parents didn’t split up or die or have addiction problems or even get into any but the most trivial arguments; none of my girlfriends ever cheated on me, at least as far as I know, or dumped me in traumatic ways; I never got hit by a car or caught anything worse than chicken pox or even had to wear braces. Not that I spent much time thinking about this, but when it occurred to me, it was with a satisfying sense that everything was going exactly as it should.
And of course there was the Ivy House. I don’t think anyone could convince me, even now, that I was anything other than lucky to have the Ivy House. I know it wasn’t that simple, I know all the reasons in intimate, serrated detail; I can lay them out in a neat line, stark and runic as black twigs on snow, and stare at them till I almost convince myself; but all it takes is one whiff of the right smell – jasmine, Lapsang Souchong, a specific old-fashioned soap that I’ve never been able to identify – or one sideways shaft of afternoon light at a particular angle, and I’m lost, in thrall all over again.
Not long ago I actually rang my cousins about it – it was almost Christmas, I was a little drunk on mulled wine from some godawful work party, or I would never have rung them, or at any rate not to ask their opinions, or their advice, or whatever it is I thought I was looking for. Susanna clearly felt it was a silly question – ‘Well, yeah, obviously we were lucky. It was an amazing place.’ And into my silence: ‘If you’re getting hung up on all the other stuff, then personally’ – long deft slice of scissors through paper, choirboys sweet and buoyant in the background, she was wrapping presents – ‘I wouldn’t. I know that’s easier said, but seriously, Toby, picking at it after how many years, what’s the point? But you do you.’ Leon, who at first had sounded genuinely pleased to hear from me, tightened up instantly: ‘How am I supposed to know? Oh, listen, while I have you, I meant to email you, I’m thinking of coming home for a bit at Easter, are you going to be—’ I got mildly belligerent and demanded an answer, which I knew perfectly well has always been the wrong way to deal with Leon, and he pretended his reception had gone and hung up on me.
And yet; and yet. It matters; matters, as far as I can see – for whatever that’s worth, at this point – more than anything. 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 on its own hidden places, and how lethal.
The skull lay on its side in the grass, between the camomile patch and the shadow of the wych elm. One of the eyeholes was plugged with a clot of dark dirt and small pale curling roots; the lower jaw gaped in a skewed, impossible howl. Clumps of something brown and matted, hair or moss, clung to the bone.
The four of us stood there in a semicircle, as if we were gathered for some incomprehensible initiation ceremony, waiting for a sig- nal to tell us how to begin. Around our feet the grass was long and wet, bowed under the weight of the morning’s rain.
‘That’s,’ I said, ‘that looks human.’
‘It’s fake,’ Tom said. ‘Some Halloween thing—’
Melissa said, ‘I don’t think it’s fake.’ I put my arm around her. She brought up a hand to take mine, but absently: all her focus was on the thing.
‘Our neighbours put a skeleton out,’ Tom said. ‘Last year. It looked totally real.’
‘I don’t think it’s fake.’
None of us moved closer.
‘How would a fake skull get in here?’ I asked.
‘Teenagers messing around,’ Tom said. ‘Throwing it over the wall, or out of a window. How would a real skull get in here?’
‘It could be old,’ Melissa said. ‘Hundreds of years, even thousands. And Zach and Sallie dug it up. Or a fox did.’
‘It’s fake as fuck,’ Leon said. His voice was high and tight and angry; the thing had scared the shit out of him. ‘And it’s not funny. It could have given someone a heart attack. Stick it in the bin, before Hugo sees it. Get a shovel out of the shed; I’m not touching it.’
Tom took three swift paces forwards, went down on one knee by the thing and leaned in close. He straightened up fast, with a sharp hiss of in-breath.
‘OK,’ he said. ‘I think it’s real.’
‘Fuck’s sake,’ Leon said, jerking his head upwards. ‘There’s no way, like literally no possible—’
‘Take a look.’
Leon didn’t move. Tom stepped back, wiping his hands on his trousers as if he had touched it.
The run down the garden had left my scar throbbing, a tiny pointed hammer knocking my vision off-kilter with every blow. It seemed to me that the best thing we could do was stay perfectly still, all of us, wait till something came flapping down to carry this back to whatever seething otherworld had discharged it at our feet; that if any of us shifted a foot, took a breath, that chance would be lost and some dreadful and unstoppable train of events would be set in motion.
‘Let me see,’ Hugo said quietly, behind us. All of us jumped.
He moved between us, his stick crunching rhythmically into the grass, and leaned over to look. ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘Yes. Zach was right.’
‘Hugo,’ I said. He seemed like salvation, the one person in the world who would know how to undo this so we could all go back inside and talk about the house some more. ‘What do we do?’
He turned his head to look at me over his shoulder, pushing up his glasses with a knuckle. ‘We call the Guards, of course,’ he said gently. ‘I’ll do it in a moment. I just wanted to see for myself.’
‘But,’ Leon said, and stopped. Hugo’s eyes rested on him for a moment, mild and expressionless, before he bent again over the skull.
I was expecting detectives, but they were uniformed Guards: two big thick-necked blank-faced guys about my age, alike enough that they could have been brothers, both of them with Midlands accents and yellow hi-vis vests and the kind of meticulous politeness that everyone understands is conditional. They arrived fast, but once they were there they didn’t seem particularly excited about the whole thing. ‘Could be an animal skull,’ said the bigger one, follow- ing Melissa and me down the hall. ‘Or old remains, maybe. Archaeology, like.’
‘You did the right thing calling us, either way,’ said the other guy. ‘Better safe than sorry.’
Hugo and Leon and Tom were still in the garden, standing well back. ‘Now,’ said the bigger guy, nodding to them, ‘let’s have a look at this,’ and he and his mate squatted on their hunkers beside the skull, trousers stretching across their thick thighs. I saw the moment when their eyes met.
The big one took a pen out of his pocket and inserted it into the empty eyehole, carefully tilting the skull to one side and the other, examining every angle. Then he used the pen to hook back the long grass from the jaw, leaning in to inspect the teeth. Leon was gnawing ferociously on a thumbnail.
When the cop looked up his face was even blanker. ‘Where was this found?’ he asked.
‘My great-nephew found it,’ Hugo said. Of all of us, he was the calmest; Melissa had her arms wrapped tightly around her waist, Leon was practically jigging with tension, and even Tom was white and stunned-looking, hair standing up like he’d been running his hands through it. ‘In a hollow tree, he says. I assume it was this one here, but I don’t know for certain.’
All of us looked up at the tree. It was the biggest in the garden, and the best for climbing: a great misshapen grey-brown bole, maybe five feet across, lumpy with rough bosses that made perfect handholds and footholds to the point where, seven or eight feet up, it split into thick branches heavy with huge green leaves. It was the same one I’d broken my ankle jumping out of, when I was a kid; with a horrible leap of my skin I realised that this thing could have been in there the whole time, I could have been just inches away from it.
The big cop glanced at his mate, who straightened up and, with surprising agility, hauled himself up the tree trunk. He braced his feet and hung on to a branch with one hand while he pulled a slim pen-shaped torch from his pocket; shone it into the split of the trunk; pointed it this way and that, peering, mouth hanging open. Finally he thumped down onto the grass with a grunt and gave the big cop a brief nod.
‘Where’s your great-nephew now?’ the big cop asked.
‘In the house,’ Hugo said, ‘with his mother and his sister. His sister was with him when he found it.’
‘Right,’ the cop said. He stood up, putting his pen away. His face, tilted to the sky, was distant; with a small shock I realised he was thrilled. ‘Let’s go have a quick word with them. Can you all come with me, please?’ And to his mate: ‘Get onto the Ds and the Bureau.’
The mate nodded. As we trooped into the house, I glanced over my shoulder one last time: the cop, feet stolidly apart, swiping and jabbing at his phone; the wych elm, vast and luxuriant in its full summer whirl of green; and on the ground between them the small brown shape, barely visible among the daisies and the long grass.
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