This book is brilliant. I’m a huge fan of Irish mystery writer Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad books, which each center on a different murder detective’s journey to solve a mystery that affects them on a deeply personal level. The Witch Elm (coming October 2018) is French’s first standalone novel, and her first book not from the point of view of a detective. I was lucky enough to be able to read and honestly review an ARC, courtesy of the publisher, Penguin Viking.
The Witch Elm centers on Toby Hennessy, a “happy-go-lucky” guy from an upper-middle-class family with what is essentially a perfect, normal life. He has a good job in PR, meets his friends often enough, has a loving family, and is planning to propose to his girlfriend, Melissa. That is, until one night two men break into his house and beat him senseless, leaving him with gaps in his memory and difficulty putting complex thoughts into words. Soon after his break-in, Toby finds out that his beloved Uncle Hugo is dying, and moves, along with Melissa, into the Ivy House, the Hennessy family home and Hugo’s residence, to care for him in his final months. A little while later, Toby’s cousin’s son finds a human skull in an ancient wych elm on the property, and as the cops close in, Toby is left wondering who was murdered, who did the murdering, and why.
There are so many things I love about this book, but I have to warn you: it’s super, super slow and long. At nearly 500 pages, this is a mammoth of a novel, and the fact that the actual murder plot doesn’t get going till about 40% in doesn’t help either. As always, though, French kept me engaged with her beautiful prose, believable characters, and the depiction of the psychological aftermath of Toby’s break-in.
+ At its core, this book is a critical look at the immutable effect of privilege. When the book starts, Toby is the definition of white straight cisgender male privilege: he’s good-looking, smooth-talking, he’s upper-middle-class and never had to think about money. All this changes after the break-in, when Toby loses his able-bodied-ness and begins to be judged–slow, lazy, stupid, a criminal?–by random people who don’t know anything about him. He can’t deal with it and his life, as happens in French’s books, changes irreversibly as a result. I can’t say more without spoiling the ending, but The Witch Elm is surprisingly political in an understated, hidden sort of way. Even more than her great characters and plots, French’s ability to reflect on and critique modern Irish society is, as always, the real star of the novel.
+ I got to know Toby, along with his cousins, Susanna and Leon, his uncle, Hugo, and his girlfriend, Melissa, so well. That’s part of the magic of French’s writing: you get to know her characters without even noticing. There are no lengthy info-dumps about what so-and-so is like or even every detail about his or her life, but if you gave me a random situation, I could probably tell you what each and every one of these characters would do. I didn’t necessarily like all of the characters, but that’s not really necessary to like the book as a whole, and it makes each of them even more believable: you can’t possibly get along with everyone you meet.
+ I kind of guessed the murderer, but I still kind of stopped breathing when it was revealed. French has an immense ability to envelop readers in the atmosphere of the world she creates. She sucked me into the Ivy House, wholly and completely and in a way no other author has done since J.K. Rowling sucked me into Hogwarts when I was eleven. It doesn’t matter if you work out the murderer or not; unless you figure out every word that French writes, you keep wanting to know how, why, what happens next. And just when you think you’ve figured everything out, she hits you with something–a twist, an idea, a decision–that’ll leave you gaping.
This novel, like all of French’s other works, deals with a multitude of important themes: among other things, The Witch Elm touches on the privilege of upper-middle-class white men, the abuse women often suffer at the hands of men, the bullying of gay youth, the inequalities of the justice system, and the unreliability of memory. That being said, this is not a light novel. But I think that that’s also the beauty of French’s work: it’s heavy, but it talks about important issues without being on-the-nose. I love the questions French asks in her novels. She doesn’t always answer all of them, but she always gets me thinking. With this novel, I started wondering about who we really are, what shapes that, and what both drives and allows us to do the things (good, bad, or in between) that we do.