Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Witch Elm

The Witch Elm by Tana French
Penguin Random House: 10/9/18
eBook review copy; 528 pages
ISBN-13: 9780735224629

The Witch Elm by Tana French is a very highly recommended crime novel of privilege, healing after a trauma, family, and, incidentally, a murder.

Toby Hennessy knows he is an attractive, lucky guy - things just seem to always work out for him or he can charm his way out of the problem. After a night out with his friends, he awakens to find two burglars in his home. They don't run when Toby confronts them, instead they beat him senseless and leave him for dead. Toby would have died too, but with his luck he is found and taken to the hospital just in the nick of time. Now, as Toby is recovering, he is beginning to understand that this crime has changed his life drastically. Physically, he has a bad arm and leg, a droopy eye, and may be subject to seizures and the trauma has left him unable to remember events and words; he can't work and has difficulty sleeping or relaxing in his home.

At first Toby bulks at his cousin's suggestion that he goes to stay at the Ivy House with his Uncle Hugo, who is in the last stages of brain cancer and needs someone to look after him, but then he acquiesces and he and his girlfriend Melissa move in. It seems that staying there helping Hugo may be helping Toby slowly recover. But when a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden, it looks like there is now going to be a murder investigation along with the investigation into his attackers.

The Witch Elm is an excellent novel. The writing is impeccable. The plot, along with multiple subplots, is perfectly presented and arranged, with an insight and astuteness for detail, character development, a sense of place, and the advancement of the action. The character development is detailed, intricate, and manages to capture the strengths and flaws of human nature as a matter of course. This is truly a character-driven novel, with Toby the focus, but all the characters have an essential depth and complexity to them.

Admittedly, Toby can be kind of a privileged jerk. He never really thought about the bad side of human nature before because he has always been lucky or able to charm his way through problems. What might turn out bad for others never has been that way for Toby until now - and it is a dramatic wake-up call for him. Now he is open to judgement on his slurred speech, awkward gait, loss of memory, and altered facial structure. A large part of the novel is wondering if it is possible for Toby to recover from his trauma.

Fans of French's Dublin Murder Squad novels may need to set aside their expectations and enjoy The Witch Elm as a marvelous stand-alone novel from an admirable writer. 

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Random House.

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