Toby is a happy-go-lucky charmer who’s dodged a scrape at work and is celebrating with friends when the night takes a turn that will change his life: he surprises two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Struggling to recover from his injuries, beginning to understand that he might never be the same man again, he takes refuge at his family’s ancestral home to care for his dying uncle Hugo. Then a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden – and as detectives close in, Toby is forced to face the possibility that his past may not be what he has always believed.
The Witch Elm asks what we become, and what we’re capable of, when we no longer know who we are.
There’s no doubt that Tana French is a fantastic writer, and her mystery books are known for their slower pace and focus on characterisation. But in this 500 page tome, the skull which sets off the crime investigation only makes its appearance on page 180 or so. Which, uh, may test the patience of many a reader.
The first third of the book essentially consists of a thorough grounding in the character of Toby, the protagonist with the Midas touch, to whom dirt doesn’t stick, a boy (and then man) who always lands with his bum in the proverbial butter – pick your idiom. That is, until a burglary-turned-assault leaves him in the hospital with permanent mental and physical trauma.
And thus begins Toby’s slow unravelling. He returns to the family’s ancestral home to continue his recovery, a house currently inhabited by a favourite uncle facing terminal health problems of his own.
With a limp, memory loss, PTSD and a drooping eye, Toby’s winning streak at life seems to have finally come to an end. This is compounded with the appearance of the aforementioned skull, which sets off a murder investigation that forces Toby to dig deep and question his childhood experiences.
If the first part of the book is a bit of an expositional disappointment, the last three or so chapters certainly kept me on my toes, with a rapid onslaught of revelations – cold-blooded planning and hot-headed reactions.
French perfectly captures extended family dynamics – the chaos, the overbearing nature, the missing when they’re gone and the claustrophobia when they’re there.
More importantly, its an examination of those people who, because of their privilege, can remain blissfully unaware of other people’s suffering – coasting through life, undermining that which seems unfathomable to them.