About a third of the way through The Witch Elm, by Tana French, I started to wonder when the book would get good. I was interested, but not totally hooked. Now that I’ve finished the book, I will never doubt French again. The first third of the novel sets the stage for the beautifully written parallels and ethical dilemmas of the second two-thirds of the book by presenting a thorough psychological portrait of protagonist Toby Hennessy. In the opening chapters of The Witch Elm, Toby receives an awful lesson in how privileged his life as a charming, middle class, white heterosexual man has been. Over and over, privilege and its benefits are thrown into sharp relief as Toby’s life is turned upside down and inside out.
There are two worst nights of Toby’s life. Both of them start out the same way, with Toby having a good time with friends and drinks. Both of them end with a crime that changes his life. The crime that occurs at the beginning of The Witch Elm sees Toby badly beaten in his Dublin apartment by a pair of thieves. He suffers from slurred speech and can’t always find the right words. He can’t multitask any more. He’s got weakness on his left side. Perhaps worst of all, his self-confidence (the epitome of his sense of self) is completely destroyed. When Toby relocates to the suburbs to help care for his terminally ill uncle and to recuperate himself, his nephew finds evidence of the other crime: a human skull in the 200-year-old wych elm in the garden of the Hennessey family’s Ivy House.
The skull turns out to be part of the remains of a teenaged boy who everyone thought had committed suicide ten years ago. The investigation into the boy, Dominic’s, murder, however, kicks up a bunch of sinister gaps in Toby’s memory. Toby remembers Dominic as kind of a mate and basically a “good guy.” Toby can’t remember much about why someone would want to kill Dominic, but his cousins remember Dominic as a sadistic, relentless bully. The more Toby learns, the more he starts to wonder if his habit of forgetting his own bad behavior might be concealing something horrible. His inability to remember what may have happened ten years ago torments him, so much so that he starts to wonder if he is the killer. And yet, things don’t quite add up—at least until the end of the book when everything wraps up in a masterful and deeply satisfying conclusion.
The mystery at the heart of The Witch Elms is delightfully plotted out. I loved the way it all played out because of the ethical complications. But the best part of The Witch Elm, I think, is the way that it exposes how we as a society bestow the privilege of being believed on certain people and withhold it from others. For some reason, white, middle class, teenaged boys (especially upper class white boys) who have a decent reputation are believed, while teenaged girls of whatever ethnicity or reputation are not believed. If girls (or women or LGBT+ people or people of color) accuse the privileged, they are told that “boys will be boys” or that they’re making things up. Toby is shown this over and over, slowly realizing how damaging it is to a person’s self-worth to be disbelieved on top of being bullied. There were a few points when I wanted to reach into the book and shake Toby until his teeth rattled because he just does not get it, not until he finally sees the full picture. The passages when he finally does it get it are simultaneously satisfying and disheartening because they contain so much truth.
There is plenty of fodder for discussion for book groups in The Witch Elm. In addition to fueling conversation about privilege and how it protects predators, readers will be left with questions about how malleable our memory is, whether or not its justifiable to take justice into one’s hands when official channels are not available, and how much people will sacrifice for their loved ones. The thematic parallels that repeatedly echo questions about privilege, memory, and the rest never bog down the plot (which gets very tense more than a few times), and give this book a lot of substance in addition to its cracking mystery.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 9 October 2018.