Review of “The Witch Elm” by Tana French

This book, a standalone and not part of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, begins with an epigraph from Hamlet: “Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.” In a broad sense, that is the underlying theme of this atmospheric mystery. On the one hand, there is your own definition of who you think you are. On the other, there is the perception others have of you. These images – sometimes complementary but sometimes at odds – come to obsess the characters.

The narrator is Toby Hennessy, 28 when most of the story takes place. He has always been, as he describes himself, lucky: attractive, from a well-off family, popular in school, fortunate in jobs in his field of public relations and marketing, and able to talk himself out of anything when others would be punished. Now all has changed utterly (to borrow from Yeats, since the book is, after all, set in Dublin).

As the story opens we see Toby joking with his two friends, Sean and Dec, in a bar. The joking is borderline nasty, but the insensitive Toby assures us it was fun. Afterwards, he is too drunk to go to the apartment of his girlfriend of three years, Melissa, so he heads to his own place. Later that night, two burglars enter, and attack Toby seriously enough to give him a traumatic head injury. It appears his luck has run out. Toby is now someone characterized by nebulous fears, fury over the damage done to him, self-loathing over his new deficits, and a powerful sense of loss.

He goes to recover at Ivy House, the home of his Uncle Hugo and the place he had spent so many happy summers with his cousins Susanna and Leon. Or they were happy for him, at least. Toby has become an unreliable narrator, simply because so much of his memory is gone after the injury. Or, perhaps, he might have been unreliable all along. As his cousin Susanna told him, “Anything you feel bad about falls straight out of your head.” But in addition, his Uncle Hugo said: “The thing is, I suppose, that one gets into the habit of being oneself. It takes some great upheaval to crack that shell and force us to discover what else might be underneath.”

When one of Susanna’s kids digs up a skull in the backyard of Ivy House, it looks like a murder may have been committed some ten years earlier, and evidence points to Toby or someone in his family as the main suspects.

It seems that a particularly persistent detective, Mike Rafferty, believes Toby committed the murder. Rafferty strikes terror into Toby’s heart:

“He was like a raptor, not cruel, not good or evil, only and utterly what he was. The purity of it, unbreakable, was beyond anything I could imagine.”

But Toby himself wants to know the truth about what happened because it may give back to him the truth about himself. He wonders who was he? What was he? What about his cousins and his uncle? And why was he attacked? Is it somehow related to this murder?

Discussion: Toby, self-absorbed, manipulative, and mostly out for just himself, is an unlikable character, and in fact, as the family’s secrets unfold, there aren’t too many likable characters in the bunch. Yet, in the capable hands of Tana French, one doesn’t want to abandon the book because of that. Toby keeps desperately asserting they are only “human” and unfortunately, that may be true. Who, after all, is anyone, really? What might events cause you to do, or what might be just under the surface, waiting to be brought out of you by events? Holocaust historian Peter Peter Matthiessen, thinking about genocide, mused about the human capacity for evil:

“We are all capable if you press the right series of buttons. Your grandmother can turn into a genocidaire. Most of us, we’re lucky enough to never hit that combination of circumstances.”

Tana French explores these questions with her usual deftness and nuance.

Evaluation: The author lost me a bit at the end, because while the unraveling was full of revelations and twists, there were some loose ends I would have rather seen resolved. But Tana French is so outstanding with dialogue and character studies, it’s hard to deny her appeal. And I should note that Jim, who read the book also, didn’t agree with me in finding the ending unsatisfactory.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2018

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3 Responses to Review of “The Witch Elm” by Tana French

  1. Kay says:

    I’m closing in on the end of this one. Have listened to it on audio and it is a long, long audio. And I like long audios. Sigh. I’m trying to figure out what to say about it. It’s definitely a different sort of book for Tana French and maybe that’s not a bad thing, though it has been a bit…something. I’ll ponder what my final thoughts will be. 🙂

  2. Beth F says:

    I’ve really fallen behind in my Tana French reading … I like the idea of a standalone, and now I’m curious what I’d think of the end.

  3. Hope Lee says:

    I’ve seen this book everywhere and I keep picking it up and putting it back down in bookstores… I don’t know if it is my thing.

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