Toby describes himself as lucky, his cousin Leon says that he gets away with everything. He has always had things easy: a rugby star in school, smart, attractive, from an affluent background, and always able to talk his way out of jam––a skill that comes in handy in his job promoting an art gallery. He makes friends easily, has kept close friends since school, and has devoted girlfriend, Melissa.
Outside a minor scrape at work, life is good. That is, until he is beaten within an inch of his life during a home invasion.
The assault lands Toby in the hospital and suffering from brain injuries that leave him physically and emotionally fragile and struggling to speak. Around the time that he is to be released from the hospital, the second of his two cousins, Susanna approaches Toby about moving in to the Ivy House, the family estate where the three cousins spent summers as children, because his uncle Hugo has been diagnosed with late-stage cancer.
Melissa agrees to move in with Toby while he recovers, so the couple relocates to the old home. The new arrangement, alternating between quiet genealogical work with Hugo and the overwhelming activity of family gatherings, is good for Toby’s health. Life settles into predictable routines and, gradually, he recovers. Hugo’s health declines in step, though, and what will happen to the house after his death hovers over the proceedings.
Then one of Susanna’s kids finds a skull in the old Witch Elm tree in the back yard and their lives are thrown into chaos. The police cut down the tree and tear up the yard in their investigation. Once the identity of the body is determined to have been Dominic Ganly, an old classmate of Toby, Susanna, and Leon’s who was reported to have committed suicide just after they graduated, Toby begins his own investigation. He thinks he remembers the dead man as a friendly acquaitance, but could he have been wrong? Is his failure to remember the result of the brain injury or repressed memory? Could he have killed Dominic?
Tana French distinguished herself with the Dublin Murder Squad stories in her ability to spin out tight psychological dramas that build both suspense and emotional depth to relatively simple cases that her detectives solve. In The Witch Elm she flips the script, building a tight psychological drama in two separate cases, this time from the perspective of the victim of one of the crimes. We rarely get to see what the police do to solve the cases, and their methods only serve to exacerbate Toby’s anguish, leading eventually to an explosive late turn that worked after a sort, but put the rest of the story in a different the rest of the story in a different hue that was, in my opinion unnecessary.
(In broad terms, the twist shapes the form the story takes, adding depth to some of the questions of memory and call into question the entire story, but since they are impossible to talk about without spoilers for the whole book, so I will not talk about them here.)
Toby’s PTSD shapes the story, but the overriding themes are memory and identity. The assault and subsequent investigations force Toby to question who he is, even while Melissa tries to keep him grounded. First, the injuries fundamentally change how he interacts with the world and leave him with blanks in his memory. Then, when the skull turns up, everything he remembers about high school and his younger self is called into question.
In Toby’s memory, high school was generally fun, the other people generally benign. But, as Leon and Susanna are quick to point out, Toby has always had things easy. He was a popular, intelligent athlete. For Leon, a gay and eccentric loner, and Susanna, a quiet, nerdy girl, high school was not so fun and their classmates not so harmless. In truth, I came away from this part of the story rethinking what my own high school experience was like since, in some respects, my background was similar to Toby’s.
Lingering over everything is the question of whether or not Toby is a good guy. Melissa certainly thinks so and Hugo agrees, as do his friends, all of whom reassure him that he was the generally benign person that he saw in everyone else. Even Susanna and Leon generally agree, albeit with some minor qualifications. Before the assault, Toby would have taken this as his due; once he is forced to face the consequences of his actions, he is not so sure.
Minor issues with the final twist notwithstanding, The Witch Elm is a powerful and compelling drama that dives deep into questions of memory and family. I went into this novel with high expectations based on having read two of her earlier novels, Broken Harbor and The Trespasser, and a couple of positive reviews, and French more than met them. This is just more evidence that French is one of, if not the best mystery-suspense writer currently working.
I am now reading Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, the first book in the Gentleman Bastards series.