Thursday, January 03, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: The Witch Elm by Tana French

Wow! Tana French proves yet again why and how she is the Queen of Literary Mystery Fiction. After writing six (ok, maybe five) exquisite entries in what is now known as the Dublin Murder Squad series, French decided to release a standalone mystery The Witch Elm (or The Wych Elm) which is not even indirectly connected to her much-celebrated prior works. When I discovered in late September that Tana French had a new book coming out soon, I pre-ordered the hardcover from Amazon instantaneously. There are a handful of authors for whom I do that for (Peter F. Hamilton, James S.A. Corey, Richard K. Morgan come immediately to mind) and there are none others in the mystery fiction area (although new books by Ian Rankin, Louise Penny, Adrian McKinty and, more recently, Val McDermid are all on my must-read-as-soon-as-I-can list).

The Witch Elm  is very different from French’s other books, which are generally police procedurals set in the context of murder mysteries and generally have police detectives on the Dublin Murder Squad as the main character for whom we get first-person perspectives.

Instead, The Witch Elm has Toby Hennessy as the main character, and for an extraordinarily long period of time (well over 100 pages, possibly close to 200) there is no sign of a dead body and no sign of anyone from the Dublin Murder Squad. There goes Tana again, breaking those genre rules and upending her readers expectations!

Toby is a very odd choice for a main character of a book that ends up being an intricately plotted murder mystery, since he’s a 20-something, blonde, attractive, upper class white guy who begins the book basically bragging about how lucky he is. His charmed life is shattered by a scene that happens very early in the book, where sudden violence befalls Toby, leaving him injured and potentially permanently incapacitated (due to a vicious blow to the head).

French is deploying and deconstructing the literary device of the unreliable narrator as a central trope of the book. Toby potentially has permanent brain damage which affects his perception of events around him as well as his memory. We the reader literally can not believe what Toby perceives to hear and see. But it also becomes clear that Toby has always been oblivious to what goes on around him due to his inability to perceive the effects of marginalization on people who do not share his class and gender.

As the plot develops (and the dead body finally arrives) we are engulfed by a complicated and multifaceted network of familial relationships that involve jealousies, slights and resentments which are sourced from events in the characters’ pasts. Toby is the only child of a pair of well-to-do parents (mom is a professor and dad is a barrister) and has grown up with two other similarly situated cousins, Susanna and Leon, who are about the same age and attended the same secondary schools as Toby. They have literally known each other their entire lives and in some sense are closer than some siblings. Their parents all vacationed together and  would regularly leave the 3 kids for weeks at a time during holidays at the home of their parents unmarried brother Hugo, at a grand old house called The Ivy House. Even now, when Toby, Susanna and Leon are nearly 30 and their grand-uncle Hugo is nearly 70 the extended family (Susanna is married and has 2 kids of her own, Toby has a longtime girlfriend named Melissa) attend weekly Sunday dinner at The Ivy House, which  almost serves as another character in the book. French delights in using her command of the language to describe its coziness and provides the reader with a real sense of place. It’s during one of these Hennessy family gatherings that a human skull is discovered in the wych elm on the grounds of the Ivy House, leading to multidirectional finger pointing and eventually actual suspicion between various pairings in the trio of cousins about how much and what each of them knows or remembers about the past and the supposed suicide of a teenaged classmate 10 years before. The notion of suspecting and being an object of suspicion of the people whom you have literally grown up with animates the emotional resonance of the book.

French uses the evanescence and plasticity of memory as another trope with which to redirect the suspicions of Toby, our unreliable narrator and the reader towards various possible suspects. She also (somewhat rashly) seizes the opportunity to conduct another anthropological survey of the social lives and mores of Dublin teenagers. This was at the heart of what I think of as her worst book, The Secret Place, which revolves around the discovery of the body of a teenage boy on the grounds of a posh private girls school. Happily, I think she’s more successful and insightful at the portrayal of modern-day teenage life in The Witch Elm. I am curious as to why French wanted to return to depicting that particular milieu when there are so many others to choose from.

Typically, for me, the joy of reading a Tana French novel has been sourced in her mellifluous, oftentimes  surprisingly piquant prose as she describes conversations between characters who are usually experiencing the worst times of their lives, either during a police investigation into the death of a loved one or recalling situations that dredge up the emotions and feelings that led someone they knew to commit (and/or conceal) a murder. Happily, that Tana French is well represented in The Witch Elm. What is missing this time is the voyeuristic perspective she usually provides the reader by allowing us to see the discovery, detection and resolution of crime(s) through the eyes of a member of the Dublin Murder Squad. Surprisingly, this is a minor loss.

Another feature of a French novel is her penchant for breaking the rules of the detective mystery form she is writing in. From the unresolved issues in her brilliant debut novel In the Woods and the stunning audacity of The Likeness to her clever refusal to center multiple books on the same detective(s) in her ongoing mystery series, to the disastrous dabble with the supernatural in The Secret Place, French has blazed her own trail in the British police procedural genre. In The Witch Elm she goes even further, by centering the book around Toby, a self-centered, entitled “git” who is oblivious to his own privilege (and prejudices). French is (I think) trying to reveal and skewer the perspective of the Tobys of the world, while she simultaneously uses his lack of awareness to misdirect the reader to the central mystery at the heart of the novel. 

In the final chapter of the book, after the major reveal of “whodunnit,” she breaks the rules of the genre again (multiple times!) so successfully that I was forced to give her my top rating and applaud her daring. This is the case, even though early in my reading of the book I had harbored disappointed misgivings about The Witch Elm’s eventual place in French’s oeuvre (“uh-oh, I think this may be another misfire like The Secret Place!” to “Oh my goodness what just happened? I have to re-read that entire section!”). By the end I felt she had surpassed the cool, precise excellence of The Trespasser, which up to that point was in a statistical tie in my heart with Broken Harbor for my designation as her best book. The Witch Elm, in my opinion, is another example of French operating at the top of her game, expanding and demonstrating what a literary genre novel can and should be. Another triumph.

Title: The Witch Elm.
Tana French.
Paperback: 509 pages.
Date Published: October 9, 2018.
Date Read: December 18, 2018.

GOODREADS RATING: ★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A+/A (4.16/4.0).


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