The Witch Elm by Tana French
‘Tis a grand day when Irish writer Tana French releases a new novel into the world! The Witch Elm is her first standalone story after five brilliant Dublin Murder Squad mysteries. She just gets better each time out.
Toby Hennessy narrates unhurriedly. He has a growing public relations problem that may well finish his budding career in an art gallery due to a very bad decision he has made. Then, brutally attacked by two burglars at his home, he must recover mentally and physically. After the attack, it was the fear of the unknown that gripped him. “I’d never known anything like it could exist: all-consuming, ravenous, a whirling black vortex that sucked me under so completely and mercilessly that it truly felt like I was being devoured alive, bones splintered, marrow sucked…But even when the fear receded for a while, it was always there: dark, misshapen, taloned, hanging somewhere above and behind me, waiting for its next movement to drop onto my back and dig in deep.”
French’s prose perfectly captures the language of Irish men in their mid-twenties, alternatively puerile or professional, filled with inside jokes and contemporary cultural references. The cadences and interplay between two detectives ring entirely true when they come to the hospital to interview Toby. Their questions lead Toby (and the reader) to wonder if the detectives know something that he does not (or perhaps they know something that Toby has not revealed yet to the reader). Just those brief early exchanges show an unerring attention to detail and create dynamic tension that continues throughout the novel.
Learning that his uncle Hugo is dying, and at his family’s suggestion, Toby and his girlfriend Melissa move to Ivy House to help Hugo. They also move to help Toby: he must “recover himself” because great gaps of his memory are gone. “I had been hoping for the vital fragment that would bring all the pieces together…It felt like they were talking about someone else, someone I had been close to a long time ago…The longing to have him back was like a physical force sucking my guts out, leaving me hollow.”
Family dynamics and their backstory are cleverly drawn out in bits and pieces. Then, as Hugo summons the family to discuss what to do with his home after his death, the two youngest children stop the process with their screams. They have found a skull in a hollow of nearby a wych elm! The cops come and things get complicated. Seemingly inconsequential events begin to connect, and Toby’s life is in danger of spiraling out of control. Hugo’s home was a great gathering place for Toby and his mates and cousins when they were teenagers. How did the skull—and skeleton—get into the hollow? When did it happen? Was it murder or suicide?
The genesis of this story may well lie in a discovery in April 1943 when a teenage boy found the skull and skeleton of a young woman in a wych elm on a private estate in England. After the initial interest faded, graffiti asking “Who put Bella in the wych elm?” began to appear and efforts to identify the skeleton began. Perhaps she has been identified; perhaps the reason for her murder has been discovered. The event and the subsequent tales which eventuated provided impetus for wild speculation, books, and television shows. Tana French has produced a fresh and entirely plausible alternative story.