BOOK REVIEW: The Witch Elm, where faulty memories make it difficult to solve a mystery

French, Tana - The Witch Elm KThe Witch Elm
Tana French

I am a huge fan of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, so was thrilled when she released a new book, even though it was stand-alone. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy it as much as I’d hoped.

Life has always been charmed for Toby Hennessey, a PR manager for a small but exclusive Dublin art gallery. If he finds himself in a difficult position–which he rarely does–he is able to talk himself out of it, making friends in the process. But then came “that night.” After celebrating with his friends Sean and Dec at the pub for once again turning a bad situation around, this time at work, Toby walks home drunk. In the middle of the night, he heard noises and when he went to his living room to see what was going on, he found two burglars carrying out his expensive electronics. Instead of leaving, they beat him so badly he nearly died from the brain trauma. In addition to the memory loss, personality changes, and impaired cognitive ability, Toby suffered physical effects such a limp and loss of strength. For the first time, life wasn’t charmed. Toby knew fear, not just fear regarding his personal safety but fear that he might never be the person he was before the accident.

When his cousin Susanna calls to tell him their Uncle Hugo is ill and suggests Toby stay at the family’s Ivy House with him, Toby doesn’t give it any thought: he’s in no condition to take care of himself, much less another person. But his girlfriend Melissa convinces him he will regret it if he doesn’t spend time with Uncle Hugo while he can. Melissa, who is really so good and sweet that she’s an absolute bore as a character, agrees to go with him. The three of them quickly establish a set of comfortable routines, with Toby helping Hugo with his genealogical research while Melissa spends the day at the retail shop she manages. Flitting through Ivy House are the uncles, Hugo’s brothers, their wives, and the cousins, Susanna, plus her husband and kids, and Leon. Toby spends much of his energy presenting a front to convince his family that he is the same as he ever was.

All their lives are disrupted, though, when Susanna’s son Zach finds a human skull in the majestic wych elm in the garden. The family hoped that the skull was possibly from the civil war, certainly from before they moved to Ivy House, but forensics tests showed that the body was there no longer than fifteen years, dating the death to around the cousins’ final year in school. When the police identify the body as Dominic Ganly, one of the cousins’ classmates, Toby realizes they aren’t just peripheral to the case: they are a part of it. He is desperate to know what happened, but his faulty memories present a clear impediment, and his narration becomes even more unreliable when it’s clear that his flawed memory likely predates his brain injury. He trusts no one, not even himself, as his tries to uncover the truth of the mystery before the police do in an effort to protect himself and his family.

For much of the novel, Toby is my least favorite character, which is funny to me since he is supposed to be so charming. Perhaps he was wildly mistaken about his personality or perhaps it was the result of the brain injury, but in any case, I did not enjoy being in his head for five hundred plus pages. Not many of the characters are likable, though, not even (especially not) Susanna’s children. And I found myself not even questioning the legitimacy of Dominic’s death as his behaviors were uncovered, something that greatly disturbed me!

The fulcrum of the novel, the uncovering of the skull in the garden, didn’t happen until about a third of the way into the narrative. Much of the book before that moment could have been edited for a tighter and I think more effective plot. After that point, nothing seems certain, which would accurately reflect Toby’s experience, though I wonder if he’d have had less paranoia if he’s smoked less pot.

We learn, with Toby, the truth about Dominic’s death, through a long explanation delivered by another character. The Trespasser also ended in such a way, and I didn’t like it then, either. I think mystery novels should be resolved more through action than exposition.

At the same time, the book seems to present a realistic portrait of brain injury and the strains it puts on the patient and his or her family (as well as the devastation of being a crime victim). Through the lens of the brain injury and Toby’s unstable identity, French questions identity and memory in general, and these themes along with her excellent writing redeem the novel to some extent.

The UK edition has a different title, The Wych Elm, as well as a different cover. This is a rare case in which I prefer the US cover design, though I’m not sure why “wych” had to be dumbed down for us.

French, Tana - The Witch Elm UK