The Witch Elm

By Tana French

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

Things have been going well at work lately.

I had a particularly good week – good stuff with the team, good experimental results. It was a great week, actually, which is why I was surprised when I found myself having what felt like a minor panic attack yesterday.

It was puzzling – I am not prone to them, and I have nothing to be anxious about (or, at least, nothing to be acutely anxious about this week – the world is burning, but it has been for a while, I’ve acclimated). But even though everything was going well, I walked around all week with an uncomfortable tightness between my lungs, as though a balloon had been inflated inside my chest cavity and was pressing against my heart.

Catharsis was achieved on a red line train home from work. I was reading ‘The Witch Elm‘, and Toby, the main character, was starting to really unravel, his perspective, his sanity, was becoming less and less trustworthy. Meanwhile the danger around him was increasing, and I really needed to him to stay calm, keep a cool head, because he being framed for murder for fuck’s sake, and he just needed to open his eyes and figure it out and fucking handle it, and I noticed that I was freaking out on the train. Not about work, or something my mom said, or whether I had forgotten my anniversary again – I wasn’t freaking about my own life at all. I was freaking out about Toby. ‘The Witch Elm’ was so unsettling that it had anxiety-bombed my entire week.

The Witch Elm‘ is Tana French’s latest novel. It is also her first novel which is not a Dublin Murder Squad novel, and so even those of us who love her (which is all of us, right?) viewed it with some slight trepidation. I’ve been very clear about how much I love Tana French. But until ‘The Witch Elm’, it would, technically, have been impossible to say whether it was Tana French I loved, or just the Dublin Murder Squad.

Don’t worry – ‘The Witch Elm‘ is a murder mystery. But it’s an unusual mystery, because it takes as its protagonist not a detective (or a coroner, or a reporter), not a victim, not even a murderer. It takes as its protagonist…a bystander?

There is a reason that most murder mysteries feature detectives – they are the participants in criminal dramas who most closely approximate an omniscient narrator. They are the ones who will eventually know everything, and that’s what we expect in exchange for reading a murder mystery: to eventually know everything, too.

That’s why, despite the fact that every murder mystery detective has crippling demons, they are also brilliant and intuitive and unerring. Despite being tortured, often in the grips of strong PTSD flashbacks, and always, always alcoholic, they approach omniscience. We need to trust them, in order to get what we came for: a solution.

Everyone else involved in a murder mystery is a flawed narrator. The job of a detective is, after all, to assemble complete knowledge. Everyone else has incomplete knowledge, a skewed perspective, their own motives. None of them are trustworthy, and one of them will turn out to be the murderer.

In ‘The Witch Elm‘, French leans into this untrustworthness, hard. Toby Hennessy is, well, a complete tool. He’s a handsome, happy-go-lucky Irishman, a thoughtless optimist who has always gotten his way. He has a good job in PR, good friends, a close family, and a great girlfriend to whom he is thinking about proposing when he surprises some burglars one night robbing his apartment. They beat him nearly to death and leave him with lasting brain damage.

A few weeks after being released from the hospital, Toby learns that his beloved uncle Hugo has been diagnosed with brain cancer, and that his case is terminal. Crippled, fractured, traumatized and spiraling into addiction and depression, Toby moves back to Ivy House.

Ivy House is the Hennessy family home. Purchased by his grandparents, it has been Hugo’s residence since their death. It is a beautiful, secluded old mansion with a long, walled garden. When they were children, Toby and his two cousins, Leon and Susannah, spent their weekends and summers there; it was in this private, lovely estate that they became like siblings.

Toby and his girlfriend move back to Ivy House to care for Hugo in his last days, and to let Toby heal. And so they are there when, one afternoon, Toby’s young nephew finds a skull in the Ivy House garden.

The Witch Elm‘ asks: Are you capable of murder? What if you had recently sustained a serious neurological injury? If your memory was damaged, if you could no longer focus, if you were having sudden, dramatic mood swings? Would you be capable then? And if you might be capable, and there were holes in your memory, would you ever be sure that you hadn’t killed someone?

Really, ‘The Witch Elm‘ is a novel about sanity and home. Specifically, about family homes, about how much the places where we happy as child matter to us, about we much we need them even as they haunt and hold us back. It’s about what we lose when we lose our past, and whether we can ever change unless we leave it.

This is a theme with Tana French: houses, houses that we love, homes (this is basically whatThe Likeness‘ was about). She has a good, visceral understanding of the way in which a beautiful place can became a physical embodiment of love itself, that losing a sense of the sacredness of a beautiful place is heartbreaking, like losing a person.

The Witch Elm‘ is really good. It’s good in all the ways that Tana French is normally good: it’s moody, atmospheric, richly detailed and absorbing. She’s a lovely writer; her prose is miles better than almost any other murder mystery prose (Benjamin Black is the only exception I can think of).

But it’s unsettling in a different way. Toby knows that he is in terrible danger, but he cannot discern whether the danger is from within, or from without. Unable to tell whether his family is trying to frame him, or whether he is, in fact, a murderer, he is excruciatingly vulnerable. This vulnerability will communicate itself to sensitive readers in the form of low-level anxiety and panic attacks on the red line.

For me, this is what sets Tana French apart from other mystery writers. Other authors are strong on plot mechanics, or on atmospherics, or on quiet menace; very few are strong on all of them. Tana French’s novels are so richly detailed that it becomes disturbingly easy to lose yourself in them.

It also makes her difficult to write about. I can’t communicate the anxious dread ‘The Witch Elm‘ made me feel. I felt like I was smothering when I was reading it, like I was in danger. This isn’t merely suspense – this is deep, subconscious identification, and it’s difficult to achieve when you read as much as I do. Tana French is special, and, at this point, I’ll read anything she writes – if she puts out a cookbook, I’ll read that cover to cover.

And, at this rate, it’ll probably scare the shit out of me.

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