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Mystery Review: The Witch Elm, Tana French (2018)

It’s taken me this long to start thinking about what luck can be, how smoothly and deliciously deceptive, how relentlessly twisted and knotted in on its own hidden places, and how lethal. - Tana French, The Witch Elm

The reviews on The Witch Elm (or Wych Elm in the UK) have been fairly mixed, with critics more positive and the popular reception somewhat muted. Sadly, I have to add myself to the list of people who didn't really enjoy The Witch Elm. I loved French's use of language, as always, but it was a slog to finish - I was able to leave it partially read for a week before I geared myself up to plow through, and I might not have bothered if I wasn't writing this review on self-imposed deadline.

I don't think this is because French abandons the Dublin Murder Squad and instead uses a civilian narrator, or even because the narrator, Toby Hennessy, is annoying, privileged, and generally awful. By changing narrators with every book, she's shown her ability to shapeshift into different characters without losing steam, and Toby is only marginally less objectionable than Rob Ryan from In the Woods. The idea of shifting perspectives to victim/suspect is a great one. And the story of Bella in the wych elm that inspires the murder in this book is a fascinating unsolved true crime.

No, in my view, the problem with this book is that this book suffers from too heavy an influence of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch. In some ways, the dialogue between the two books is interesting, but both could have easily been cut by a third and still have told their stories with plenty of words to spare.

Let me lay out the argument for why I feel confident about French being influenced by The Goldfinch:

  1. We can be sure French has read The Goldfinch: she has expressed her admiration of Tartt in interviews.

  2. Tartt's influence has cropped up in French's work before - The Likeness has a strong imprint of Tartt's The Secret History. And, also, I think, does not especially profit from that imprint.

  3. There are similarities between characters: Toby and Theo, the erstwhile antihero of The Golfinch, (besides sharing similar names) are both art-adjacent, spoiled, immoral, heavily drugged, and maddeningly whiny protagonists. (Hugo, Toby's uncle, and Hobie, Theo's mentor, also share similar names and personalities.)

  4. There are some parallels in plot points - especially early on, with aftermath of a beating Toby suffers in a burglary similar to Theo's injuries from a terrorist attack at the museum.

  5. There are some similarities in general style, particularly in the choice of page-long sentences over moving the plot and characters forward - that is more Tartt's style than French's.

Now, there's nothing wrong with one author influencing another, and I enjoy many aspects of Tartt's work, even if I think it takes her forever sometimes to get to the point. But I think French is at her best when she keeps things relatively snappy, as her tendency can be to meander otherwise, and that's simply not what happens in The Witch Elm.

As to what does happen: Like Theo in The Goldfinch, in The Witch Elm, privileged Toby Hennessy's life is thrown upside down by a (semi) random attack. In Toby's case, it's a burglary gone wrong, rather than Theo's terrorist attack, but the idea is the same - both are thrown out of their comfortable existences and neither respond to this well. They're both unreliable narrators, due both to their drug use and their personalities - both are self-admittedly liars.

After the attack, Toby moves to his family's house in the suburbs of Dublin, partially to care for his dying uncle Hugo. During a family gathering, a skull is found in a tree in the garden by Toby's nephew. It's here that the story does pick up, as French seems to ditch Tartt's influence, and we discover that the body was the classmate of Toby and his cousins when they were teenagers. The police arrive to investigate who could have wanted this boy dead, and Toby begins to wonder if he himself may be the murderer.

The last third of the book, where Toby is trying to unravel what happened ten years ago, is quite good, but it takes so long to get there - and Toby is such an unpleasant companion in this long journey - that, as I said, it was hard to force myself over that hump of the first third to one half of the book to get to the good stuff. I remain excited to see what French writes next, though.

Summary: Three and a half Sherlocks (French's writing is too good not to give it a pass. Speed read up to the discovery of the body.) Pairs well with risotto someone else has made, as Toby wouldn't want you to do much work.

Coming up next! I launch my next reviews, following the works of the criminally understudied (in the US, recently) Sarah Caudwell. A barrister and tax expert, Caudwell's four books pull from her deep professional knowledge, star the delightfully nosy Oxford don Hilary Tamar as he or she (it's never made clear) investigates various mysteries of the human heart and international tax planning along with a gang of barristers from Lincoln's Inn. Trust me, these books are a treat.

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