A tree hides a skeleton and secrets in ‘The Witch Elm’ by Tana French
Tana French could not have predicted Brett M. Kavanaugh, so it’s either an extraordinary coincidence or an indictment of the world we live in that her newest book, published within a week of his confirmation, revolves around a privileged white man and all the things he forgets while others can’t help but remember — many of them misdeeds and misjudgments from high school.
“The Witch Elm” — French’s first standalone to be published after six books in the truly superb Dublin Murder Squad series — introduces her seventh first-person narrator, and like all of her novels, it becomes an incisive psychological portrait embedded in a mesmerizing murder mystery.
For 28 years, Toby Hennessy has had everything go his way: He’s white and male, but also charming and handsome, from a wealthy, close-knit family; he got his public relations job from a male boss who hired him over a woman with years more experience. He’s taken for granted that he is liked and trusted, forgiven and believed, getting away with his occasional stunts and lies. He never uses the word “privilege,” but he understands he’s had a good run. As he notes in the book’s opening line, “I’ve always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person.”
Luck is the watchword for “The Witch Elm”: who has it, who doesn’t; where circumstance ends and the immutable begins. Toby’s luck changes one night, “the dark corroded hinge between before and after.” A violent home invasion leaves him physically and mentally impaired — weak left limbs, a droopy eyelid, “[h]oles in my mind, blind spots shimmering nastily like migraine aura.” It only gets worse from there, and decades of thoughtlessly happy living have left him ill equipped to cope with misfortune.
When his bachelor uncle Hugo is diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, Toby moves in with him, returning to the Hennessy family’s ancestral home. Toby and his cousins, Susanna and Leon, grew up in and out of Ivy House, where they played as children, and later partied as teenagers, largely unsupervised. He has a rosy, idyllic view of their shared youth, one that is challenged when a literal skeleton appears — not in the closet, but in the giant wych elm in the garden.
As suspicion starts to fall on the current and former residents of Ivy House, Toby is forced to consider, for the first time, that the past is not quite as honey-golden as he thought. He’s disturbed to learn that Susanna, a woman, and Leon, a gay man, had experiences that are at odds with his memories. “Oh, you,” chides Susanna. “[A]nything you feel bad about just falls straight out of your head.” His high school years are the focus of this reevaluation, including a series of events that rolled off him but stuck vengefully with his loved ones (“Even if I’d been there for this stuff, it sounded close enough to normal that I might not have registered it at all.”). He doesn’t take any of this well: “I had liked school a lot, had remembered it with real fondness and an inner grin at all the stuff we had got away with, and now apparently the school I had liked so much had never existed.”
“The Witch Elm” is over 500 pages long, and it takes a bit more patience than French’s police procedurals, which by their nature offer more suspense and intricate detective work. It’s immensely talky, the story unfolding over several long conversations without a ton of present-day action (he does play “Boy Detective,” as he calls it, but that mostly involves talking to his cousins; two of these conversations occupy a full fifth of the book).
But the dialogue is riveting, every line of it necessary, every scene just vibrant and dripping with juice. French has a deep understanding of her characters, and she doesn’t seem to have it in her to write a bad sentence. She could make a Target run feel tense and revelatory, but it’s a real gift to have such a talented, detail-oriented writer tapping into the narrative bounty of good old-fashioned murder (“This is what people always say about murders, isn’t it? They drag up all kinds of other stuff.”).
To make sense of the past — and the skeleton in the wych elm — Toby has to reexamine himself, taking a close look at his conveniently partial memories, the assumptions underpinning his core identity. “The thing is, I suppose,” says Hugo, “that one gets into the habit of being oneself. It takes some great upheaval to crack that shell and force us to discover what else might be underneath.” It’s a tough task, one that many lucky, terrible people never have to do.
Cha is the author of the Juniper Song mystery series; her next book will be published by Ecco in 2019.
Viking: 528 pp., $28
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