Our Reviews: 'The Witch Elm'
The Book: "The Witch Elm" by Tana French
Publisher: Viking; First Edition edition (Oct. 9, 2018)
Synopsis: Toby is a happy-go-lucky charmer who's dodged a scrape at work and is celebrating with friends when the night takes a turn that will change his life — he surprises two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Struggling to recover from his injuries, beginning to understand that he might never be the same man again, he takes refuge at his family's ancestral home to care for his dying uncle Hugo. Then a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden — and as detectives close in, Toby is forced to face the possibility that his past may not be what he has always believed.
I first became interested in reading "The Witch Elm" after a reading Stephen King's review in The New York Times Sunday Book Review. In addition to complaining that the dust jacket gives away the plot of the first 140 pages (which it does), King praised Tana French's work — her fourth book and first stand-alone piece. There's something familiar about the way French writes. It's easy to forget you're reading a novel and not having a conversation with Toby, the narrator. Like most people, Toby is an unreliable narrator. It is only after a tragic event that he learns about well-kept family secrets held within a witch elm on the property of his family's ancestral home. The journey this new information takes him on reshapes his personal narrative. It's a big book. It's a long book. It's slow to build. It builds and it builds and then when you come to the end you know everything that has happened and shaped these people, this family and how it has impacted all of their lives. There is sadness. There is tragedy. There is loss. There is happiness. And life goes on. It's worth the time and the investment.
— Jennifer Huberdeau, UpCountry editor
This was my first time reading a Tana French novel, and after hearing about her as an author, I'm wondering if I should have started with another one of her works, first. Don't get me wrong, I think French can write — there are some great dialogue scenes in "The Witch Elm," and she does set up a decent universe for the book to exist in — but I don't think even she cares about these characters in the book. The story is disjointed, and takes forever to really get going. Then, once the plot twist happens, things move very quickly — and again, awkwardly — toward a conclusion that left me very depressed and sad. I liked how the book made us think about memories, and how they shape our view of past events, but it was hard for me to feel bad for the protagonist, Toby Hennessey, and I didn't care for a single secondary character. I'm sure devotees of French will chalk this up as another classic in her library, but if not for this book club, I would have put this down and bolted around page 200.
— Geoff Smith, sports editor
I'm always thrilled by the announcement of a new Tana French. My friends and family will tell you I'm pretty pushy about recommending her. In "The Witch Elm," she comes back from what was for me a pretty underwhelming mystery in "The Trespasser," with some of her best writing yet. The premise is fairly simple: A body is found in the family garden, and obviously the killer has to be one of them. French's real talent lies in her ability to take a simple premise and layer it — the real thrill isn't who killed the boy in the tree, it's the atmosphere of the old rambling family home becoming suddenly unfamiliar and dangerous, relied upon family relationships unraveling under suspicion and pressure, a narrator who's never quite sure what's happening around him. It's not French's plots that I find so remarkably engaging, it's her prose: subtle, engrossing and lovely. In her first foray outside of the Dublin Murder Squad series, "The Witch Elm" is still recognizably French — and is possibly her most remarkable work yet.
— Meggie Baker, calendar editor
I love a good mystery that keeps you guessing. I love this good mystery even more because it not only kept me guessing, but with a sense of unease and discomfort created by Tana French's beautiful ability to create a space and story that transformed with every new memory or piece of evidence. This is the first mystery novel I've read where I didn't know who to root for. Usually, these things are clear — the narrator is the "good guy" or there's a detective on a mission with a heart of gold — but French's characters upend all of that. In the end, you get answers, but they're not necessarily the ones you were looking for. And French's ability to make you think about perceptions, privilege and the grey in between good and bad makes this book one of those you'll want to read with a group of friends so you can keep discussing it long after the mystery is solved. Make this one your next book club pick, you won't be disappointed.
— Lindsey Hollenbaugh, managing editor of features
In the opening line of Tana French's novel, "The Witch Elm," the book's narrator, Toby Hennessey declares, "I've always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person." But is he? Through conversations among the cousins, we get to know the characters fairly well (although mostly only through Toby's eyes) — Susanna, a one-time hippie now a stay-at-home mom of two, and Leon, a gay man who can't commit to anything or anyone — and their sibling-like rivalries, jealousies and loyalties. The more I got to know the cousins, the less I trusted them and liked them.
This is the first Tana French book I've read. It's long (500 pages) and the action doesn't really begin until at least halfway through the book, but French uses the first half to skillfully construct relationships and instill a building tension. The last half of the book flies by as the mystery of the skull is revealed ... and just when you think it's all resolved, the other shoe drops. And all of your preconceived notions about everyone changes. I loved this book. It was a fast and sometimes nail-biting read. I highly recommend it.
— Margaret Button, associate features editor
Win a copy of the book
If you would like to take home a copy of "The Witch Elm," email or write to Lindsey Hollenbaugh, managing editor of features, and tell her who your favorite author is. Who should be on our radar when picking books?
What you need to do: Send your comment via email to email@example.com. Or, via mail: Lindsey Hollenbaugh, The Berkshire Eagle, 75 South Church St., Pittsfield MA, 01201. Please include your first and last name and your mailing address. Good luck, and happy reading!
What we're reading next ...
Our next book club pick is "Here and Now and Then: A Novel," by Mike Chen.
Kin Stewart is an everyday family man: working in IT, trying to keep the spark in his marriage, struggling to connect with his teenage daughter, Miranda. But his current life is a far cry from his previous career ... as a time-traveling secret agent from 2142. Stranded in suburban San Francisco since the 1990s after a botched mission, Kin has kept his past hidden from everyone around him, despite the increasing blackouts and memory loss affecting his time-traveler's brain. Until one afternoon, his "rescue" team arrives — 18 years too late.
Their mission: return Kin to 2142, where he's only been gone weeks, not years, and where another family is waiting for him. A family he can't remember.
A uniquely emotional genre-bending debut, "Here and Now and Then" captures the perfect balance of heart, playfulness and imagination, offering an intimate glimpse into the crevices of a father's heart and its capacity to stretch across both space and time to protect the people that mean the most.
Read along with us and email Lindsey Hollenbaugh your thoughts to be included in our next book club edition, on the second Sunday of March. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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