The Witch Elm
by Tana French
Viking Books, 2018
When Tana French’s new novel The Witch Elm was announced, readers were surprised and perhaps more than a little disappointed to hear that it would not be a continuation of her enormously successful thriller series, The Dublin Murder Squad. Six books strong as of the publication of The Trespasser in 2016, the series previously represented the entirety of French’s publishing career.
But in The Witch Elm, French shakes off the Murder Squad formula, instead focusing on the most everyday of civilians. Toby Hennessey is your average guy: he’s from a good family, has a good job and a sunshiny girlfriend. He’s lived a charmed life up to the reader’s introduction to him. But one evening after a night out celebrating his latest lucky break, Toby’s apartment is burglarized while he is home. Instead of fleeing, the burglars beat Toby within an inch of his life and steal every valuable he owns.
Toby barely survives but does not make it through unchanged. Physically and mentally, Toby barely resembles his previous self. His memory is severely impaired, his breezy confidence transformed into an itching paranoia, and the swagger in his step brutally replaced by a limp.
After an unsettling convalescence in the very same apartment in which he was attacked, Toby is convinced to move in with his terminally ill uncle Hugo by his paternal cousins with whom he used to spend his summers during his teenage years. His girlfriend follows him to the family’s ancestral home and for a brief period, the three establish a happy dynamic until a skull is found in the hollow of the old wych elm tree in Hugo’s garden.
Although the structure of her Dublin Murder Squad series is loose, with side characters shifting to main stage roles in each subsequent book, every main character is employed by law enforcement in some capacity. This seems to have grown taxing for French and dedicated readers may have sensed in the back half of the Murder Squad series that she was itching to break out of these constraints. The latter three became notably more psychological and experimental in structure. To limit Tana French to solely writing from the perspective of detectives is to deprive her of what she has proven to be her real artistic strength: character studies.
In this new novel, French unshackles herself from writing a mystery through the eyes of those paid to solve it. By doing so, she’s able to go deeper into the psyche of an individual and his shifting worldview. Toby is effectively an unreliable narrator, but not because he’s attempting to deceive us. As his cousins Susanna and Leon note, he’s a sieve when it comes to any disagreeable memory from his past and the severe beating he takes at the beginning of the novel cruelly impairs him. We’re led to question not only his recollections of the past, but also how well he perceives what’s going on around him in the present.
Toby’s transformation is jarring to the both the reader and to himself. We only know him through the tinted lens with which he sees himself after his attack, but it is easy to feel how much he both misses but also doesn’t recognize the man he used to be. Trying to solve the mystery of the skeleton in the garden (playing “Toby, the boy detective” as he explains it) allows him to pull out some qualities of his former self, but when he does so, it feels like play acting:
I had never done anything like this before. The cunning maverick striking out on his lone enterprise had never been my thing; I had always been happy to drift along in someone else’s wake, joining in on whatever looked interesting and leaving the rest alone. It felt strange enough doing this to begin with, but I’d been unprepared for how well I would make it work, or for how good it would feel. And what made it even murkier and more confusing was how much of myself it had brought back: my old ease, my old charm, my old persuasiveness, but transformed in fundamental ways, strange distorted flashes reflected through a dark mirror.
Peppered through the book are discussions on one’s sense of self. Toby’s uncle is a genealogist who combs through old records and diaries to help a woman who will become his final client to discover why there is an unexpected result in her DNA analysis. Hugo is concerned that his findings will disconcert his client since his discoveries prove that neither she nor her family are who they believed themselves to be. It becomes an interesting parallel to Toby’s experience. If, before the fateful night of the break-in, Toby prided himself on luck and having an easy go of it, who is he now that it appears neither of those things now apply?
In fact, luck is an interesting mobile spinning atop this novel. As we creep along in the story, readers can only wait with bated breath to see if Toby’s luck is going to turn. Or, perhaps his luck has simply run out. Maybe luck is something finite and allotted and after making one too many withdrawals, Toby’s world will now crumble around him. Most likely, his fortunes now have a different measuring stick.
What’s for certain is that readers can count their lucky stars to get to spend time absorbed in a new Tana French novel. Despite stepping away from the series that has made her so popular, this is still a mystery that deeply satisfies. Yet it certainly has a greater inclination toward the disturbing. Where in the Murder Squad series the detectives may need to live with some fallout of their cases, they are largely able to return to their daily lives. But in this book, the case is at the center of Toby’s life. There’s no taking time off of work to shake off the huge impact it has, making this her most unnerving book of all.
Olive Fellows is a young professional and Booktuber (at https://www.youtube.com/user/olivejuice1026) living in Pittsburgh.