*Starred Review* French, author of the award-winning Dublin Murder Squad series, delivers a spellbinding stand-alone novel carefully crafted in her unique, darkly elegant prose style, which Stephen King has called "incandescent." Toby Hennessy always considered himself a lucky guy, trading on his considerable charm for a successful life, until he has the misfortune to surprise two burglars in his flat. He is beaten and left for dead, and after a less-than-successful recovery, he agrees to care for his dying uncle, Hugo, at the family's ancestral home while working on regaining his own cognitive and motor skills. When a skull is found in the trunk of an ancient tree in the garden, his dysfunctional brain struggles to reassess the past, evidently not what it once seemed and now abounding in "million-euro" questions. Issues of identity permeate the narrative. Toby's previous forays using fake social-media accounts become an issue for the police. Welcome comic relief comes via Hugo's genealogy investigation service, now in high gear because of Americans confounded by their Irish DNA test results. Toby finds himself wondering how much he had ever really known about his family, now so disconcerted that their misery is "like some rampaging animal," and the reader gets pulled into the vortex right along with them. As Oscar Wilde wrote, "The truth is rarely pure and never simple." Copyright 2018 Booklist Reviews.
Publishers Weekly Reviews
Reviewed by Julie Buntin
The Witch Elm is Tana French's first standalone, following five Dublin Murder Squad mysteries. It's as good as the best of those novels, if not better. In theme and atmosphere, it evokes her earliest two books, Into the Woods and The Likeness, using the driving mystery—of course, there's a murder—as a vehicle for asking complex questions about identity and human nature. But in this latest work, privilege is French's subject; more specifically, the relationship between privilege and what we perceive as luck. Who might we become if the privileges we take for granted were suddenly ripped away?
Instead of a world-weary detective, our narrator is Toby, an easygoing 20-something who has always taken his wild good fortune as a matter of course. He's attractive, clever, and universally liked. A publicist for a Dublin art gallery, he has a girlfriend so saintly that it takes a while for her to register as a real character (or at least for him to see her that way). Then robbers break into his apartment and beat him so badly that the physical damage permeates every aspect of his life, fundamentally altering his appearance, his gait, and his sense of self. His memory is newly riddled with gaps; his frustration as he attempts to discern what's real, what's remembered, and what's paranoia adds fuel to the plot. While he's in the hospital, his beloved Uncle Hugo, keeper of the Ivy House, a family property that's rendered with French's signature attention to real estate, is diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Toby moves in with him, both to keep him company and because he, too, needs a caretaker.
When a human skull turns up in a hollow of a witch elm in the backyard of the Ivy House, the plot revs its engine. Who does the skull belong to? And what does Toby have to do with whoever died in his backyard, or at least who was buried there? In typical French fashion, just when you think you've started to piece it all together, the picture shifts before your eyes. It's a bold move to wait until nearly a third of the way into the book to deploy the body. But what might seem like throat-clearing in another writer's novel is taut and tense in The Witch Elm, thanks to a layered network of subplots and the increasing fragmentation of Toby himself. In many ways, the most interesting question the novel asks is not whodunit; it's whether, and how, Toby will come back together again.
Stepping outside the restrictions of the Dublin Murder Squad format suits French. Readers used to the detective's perspective might miss the shop talk, not to mention the pleasure of inhabiting the POV of the smartest character rather than (in this case) the most bewildered. By channeling the story through a narrator who's unfamiliar with the very worst parts of human nature, she's able to put her thematic questions at center stage . She carefully builds Toby up, and then strips every part of him away; the result is a chilling interrogation of privilege and the transformative effects of trauma.
Julie Buntin is the author of Marlena, a novel.
Copyright 2018 Publishers Weekly.