The Witch Elm by Tana French: A review

Wow! Just...wow. That woman can write!

Not that this was a new discovery. After all, I had read all of Tana French's six previous books, each of them a part of the "Dublin Murder Squad" series. There's not a bad book among them and I had been looking forward to number seven. I was disappointed when I read a few months ago that her next book would be a stand-alone mystery, not part of the series. I needn't have worried. 

In The Witch Elm, Tana French has surpassed herself, in my opinion. I think this is her best book yet. And although it doesn't have the members of the Dublin Murder Squad as characters and narrators, it does feature some Dublin police detectives as integral parts of the plot.

Our narrator here is one Toby Hennessy. He is the public relations handler for a small Dublin art gallery. He is a young man who has built his life on his ability to charm his way into and out of situations. The first sentence of his narrative is, "I've always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person." 

Luck is a recurring theme throughout the book, both its presence and the lack of it. It could, in fact, be seen as a meditation upon the source of luck: Is it something that is bred in the bone, or is it something that is bestowed by some outside force?

As we meet Toby, the art gallery's current show features some street artists, some of them homeless, "skangers," as the Irish slang would call them. One of the skanger-artists is called Gouger and seems to show some particular talent, but maybe not quite enough. A gallery employee, Tiernan, decides to help things along by touching up the artist's work to make it more interesting and salable. Toby catches him at it but keeps quiet. Then the gallery owner discovers the fraud and fires Tiernan but keeps Toby on. There's that luck again.

Soon after, Toby goes home to his apartment and sometime during the night his home is burgled, and when he wakes up and discovers the two invaders ransacking his living room, they beat him within an inch of his life.

Sometime later, he wakes up in the hospital with gaps in his memory, a drooping eyelid, a limp, aphasia, and PTSD. As he regains consciousness, a doctor comes to check on him and tells him, "You were very lucky."

Recovery is a very halting process, but he is attended throughout by his saint of a girlfriend, Melissa. He is visited repeatedly by two detectives who are investigating the case. They search for clues in his relationships. Who had he offended? Who had reason to hate him? They don't seem to be making any progress, but one of the detectives tells him that he always gets his man in the end.

But all of this is merely prelude. It is not even the main story of The Witch Elm.  

Toby has a beloved uncle named Hugo who has never married and still lives in the family home called Ivy House, a place where Toby and his cousins spent idyllic summers when they were growing up. It transpires that Hugo has been diagnosed with brain cancer. He only has a few months to live and he needs someone with him at all times. Since Toby is the member of the family not presently working and who has plenty of time on his hands, he and Melissa take up residence in Ivy House, living with and caring for Hugo.

Every Sunday, the entire family descends on Ivy House for family luncheon. The children of the family play in the enclosed back garden and in that back garden is a 200-year-old elm tree, a wych elm. While playing on the tree, as luck would have it, one of the children finds a human skull tucked into a hole in the tree. The police are called in and soon an entire skeleton is unearthed and, at length, is identified as that of a young man, an acquaintance of Toby and his cousins, who had been thought to have committed suicide by drowning ten years before, although his body had never been recovered. How his skeleton came to be in the tree and his relationships with the cousins in the last summer before his death make up the main story of the book.

The two cousins who play important roles in this story are Susanna, who was a nerdy teenager who grew into a bit of a wild-child and then chucked it all to become a suburban wife and mother; and Leon, a gay teenager dealing with the prejudices and taunts of his peers who grew into an "I'm-gay-so-deal-with-it" young adult. Their teenage experiences are central to the story French tells us.

That story is one of literary mystery/suspense. The most compelling parts of it for me were the relating of the casual sexual harassment that was a part of these teenagers' lives and how it affected the course of their lives; it was so integral to their experiences in that fateful summer that it wasn't even noticed. It wasn't remarked upon. It was just an accepted part of the landscape of being a vulnerable teenager. (Perhaps the current political situation in our country has made me extra sensitive to such storylines, but it seems that every book that I read these days speaks to the subject of sexism and misogyny.)

The two detectives assigned to the skeleton in the tree case doggedly pursue their investigation, returning again and again to interview Toby about his relationship with the victim. The problem is that Toby can't remember much. He seems to have been a pretty oblivious teenager and since the attack his memory is shot anyway. He struggles to recall anything from that summer.

French builds her case and the tension with slow but inexorable force. The denouement when it comes is both unexpected and, upon reflection, perfectly inevitable. And it is brilliant. What will she ever do to top this one?

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 


Comments

  1. Wow, that's an impressive review, Dorothy! It seems that some of French's magic rubbed on you. :-) One day I will read the Dublin Murder Squad series, this one included. I'm doing my best to avoid murder mysteries/suspense/thrillers nowadays, as much as I can anyways. :-)

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    Replies
    1. The thriller part is almost secondary here. To me, it reads more like literary fiction. But whatever we choose to call it, it is very good.

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