The Witch Elm, a review

Tana French writes compelling stories, stories that are hard to put down.  Years ago I read one of her earlier novels and found it to be enthralling and entertaining, but ultimately disturbing when I realized how unreliable the narrator was.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to read another of her books, but I took a chance on Witch Elm and wasn’t disappointed.  It’s an excellent read.

The narrator in Witch Elm is unreliable too, but in a different way than the previous novel.  Toby Hennessy is 28 years old, a confident young man who announces in the first sentence that he has always considered himself lucky, and indeed we would agree.  The son of an upper middle class, close-knit, supportive Dublin family, Toby has been working since college as a promotional agent for a local art gallery.  At the beginning of the book, he’s thinking that the time is right now to make his move to one of the large PR firms in the city.  Then he will propose to his sweet, intelligent, pretty girlfriend and the two of them will get a Georgian house on the water and start a family.  But life intervenes, as it tends to do in novels, when Toby surprises two burglars in his apartment, is beaten within an inch of his life, and ends up in the hospital with a traumatic brain injury.

In school, Toby had always run with the popular crowd.  He’d always felt safe, and let’s face it—entitled.  Dealing with memory issues, PTSD, and dismissive doctors and police detectives makes him feel vulnerable in a way he has never experienced before.  To top it off, his cousin calls with sad news:  their favorite bachelor uncle, Hugo, has been diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer and has only a short time to live.  At the urging of his girlfriend, Melissa, Toby moves into the family’s ancestral home, Ivy House, on the outskirts of Dublin, to tend to Hugo, and to give himself a sanctuary in which to heal himself.  Melissa comes too.

So we settle into the heart of the novel.  Toby, Melissa, and the affable Hugo make a congenial trio.  The three of them fall into a comfortable routine, and all seems well.  Other family members come and go often, particularly Toby’s cousins Susanna and Leon.  We learn the three of them were raised together as children and teens, attending the same schools, and spending school breaks with Hugo at the Ivy House while their parents vacationed abroad.  Though they went their own way for college and have grown somewhat apart, Toby considers them more siblings than cousins and is pleased during this stressful time to be seeing them often.

And then!!—human skeletal remains are found on the premises, dropped inside the hollow center of the ancient Wych Elm that grows in the expansive gardens of Ivy House.  So the mystery begins.

I won’t tell you much more about the plot.  There are twists and turns and a red herring or two.  I’m sure mystery fans will love it.  But this is no cozy. What raises the book beyond the formulaic is Toby’s sudden introspection.  If he hadn’t had a brain injury, our narrator no doubt would have weathered these emotional storms without a lot of drama.  But now he’s learning how oblivious he’s been to—well, a lot!!  There was a lot happening right in front of him over the years that escaped his notice.  Even the consequences of his own behavior were something that he remained blissfully unaware of.  It is painful to watch him try to sort it all out, doubting his memories, growing paranoid, wondering if the assault in his apartment is somehow connected to the discovery of this body at Ivy House.  It is a fascinating journey.

No worries as far as the crimes go:  all is eventually revealed, all is explained.  It’s just not the happiest of outcomes—and I’ll leave it at that.

I wholeheartedly recommend The Witch Elm for thriller fans.  As for me, it will be a while before I pick up another Tana French novel.  They’re just too good for me.

Photo by D. Jameson RAGE at Unsplash

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