The Witch Elmby Tana French Published 09 Oct 2018
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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.
A spellbinding standalone from one of the best suspense writers working today, The Witch Elm asks what we become, and what we’re capable of, when we no longer know who we are.
"The Witch Elm" Reviews
I actually didn't love a Tana French book... the world is broken. I just knew I jinxed it by writing that first paragraph in my review of The Secret Place.
I keep trying to convince myself to bump this up a star because it's hard to believe Tana French can write anything that isn't amazing. It's definitely not a bad book, but The Witch Elm - French's first standalone outside of her Dublin Murder Squad series - just didn't contain a lot of the stuff I've loved from this author.
To start with, I feel like my love for French is centred around her awesome, snarky, flawed, messy, human detectives. The crimes are whatever; the detectives - their voices, quirks, passions and personal histories - are what make her books so damn addictive. I shipped Rob and Cassie so hard in In the Woods, and Cassie herself made the implausible plot of The Likeness actually okay. I will probably never get over Frank and Rosie from Faithful Place. And that's before we've got to Kennedy, Moran and the ferocious Antoinette Conway.
Toby? He just doesn't compare. He's an asshole, but it's not that because sometimes assholes can be interesting (I might want to rewrite that sentence later). It's more that he's obnoxiously clueless, a self-proclaimed "lucky bastard" wrapped in a bubble of his own privilege. He's tall, blond and handsome, works at a PR firm, has a loving girlfriend and a group of good friends, and pretty much gets away with everything. He's a person who thinks this about poor, homeless people:
They could have gone to school. Instead of spending their time sniffing glue and breaking the wing mirrors off cars. They could have got jobs. The recession's over; there's no reason for anyone to be stuck in the muck unless they actually choose to be.
Flaws are interesting, but Toby's casual misogyny, judgement of others, and condescension make him extremely irritating. Plus, French's narrators are typically smart and intuitive, so Toby's head-scratching was frustrating.
I think I can trace a lot of my issues back to Toby. For example, I usually enjoy the long-winded nature of Tana French's books. She can get away with waffling on because I genuinely enjoy learning details about the characters, and listening to them have pages of dialogue about something unrelated to the plot. But I was so uninterested in Toby that huge chunks of this book made me want to go to sleep.
It takes so long to get to the main mystery, too. I get the point of the lengthy build-up in order to understand Toby as a character - someone who has been handed everything in life without having to face the struggles others would have, and someone who cannot believe it when he meets his first misfortune - but that didn't make it any more enjoyable to get through. It's a good hundred pages before the main story even rears its head.
I also can't deny that I miss the exciting investigations and police procedure the detectives usually take us through.
But I don't want this to get too negative. French does a lot of excellent things in this book and she digs into something interesting with Toby: how someone's luck, privilege, whatever-you-want-to-call-it can really affect not just a person's physical circumstances but their entire outlook on life. He's a conceptually fascinating individual, but it was so hard to find sympathy for him. It was this, in the end, that made me unable to care who the murderer was.
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oooh, goodreads choice awards semifinalist for best mystery & thriller 2018! what will happen?
OH MY GOD, IT'S HERE! AND IT'S NOT AN ARC - IT'S A FINISHED COPY AND IT'S MIIIIIIINE! goodbye, rest of day. you belong to tana french now.
UPDATE - while my plan to corner an unscrupulous intern (harlequin presents #945: cornering the unscrupulous intern) may have failed, the universe has provided, and i am going to be reviewing this for l.a. review of books - ARC is en route. A MOST FRABJOUS DAY, INDEED!!!
these are the penguin random house offices in nyc. i am prepared to camp out in front of them until some kindly intern slips me an ARC of this.
2 and 4 stars. If I could give this a dual rating, I would!
Explanation of rating: I had 5-star expectations for The Witch Elm--Tana French is one of my favorite authors and while I haven’t loved all of her books, I really enjoyed the most recent installments of the Murder Squad series. Unfortunately, my expectations were not met. There were parts of the Witch Elm that I loved, but others not so much.
It’s hard to describe The Witch Elm--it’s part mystery, part thriller, part family drama. Primarily, it is a psychological character study.
Toby has had all the luck in the world. He has natural good looks and things come easily to him: his jobs, his friends, and his girlfriend. He comes from a loving upper-class Dublin family, who can offer financial support when needed. Needless to say, Toby hasn’t faced many struggles in his young life, until one night when his luck runs out and his life changes forever. The Witch Elm chronicles Toby’s decline from golden boy to an empty shell of a man.
Toby is the primary unreliable narrator. I enjoyed getting inside of his head. I was riveted for about the first 20%--Toby’s voice is charismatic and I couldn't wait to hear more and learn more about him. But then NOTHING happens for quite some time. Yes, the reader learns more details about Toby’s family and his current struggles, but these parts could have been edited down quite a bit. What bothered me was not that there wasn’t much happening and the amount of information provided seemed superfluous. This is a repeated pattern throughout the book: drama- nothing- drama nothing- drama. It seems purposefully done to fully give the reader a full view of Toby’s mental decline, but I feel like the same impact could have been achieved without a full-on recap of every minute of Toby's life. If you are a reader who does not like reading every minute detail about a character’s life, you might struggle with this book.
On the other hand, there are elements of this novel that are fascinating. Tana French certainly knows how to write a sentence; her characters are finely crafted and well-developed. The setting is multidimensional and takes on a life of its own. I really enjoyed the ending and having the opportunity to witness a complete view of Toby’s transformation. While this didn’t wholly work for me, I would still recommend for those who enjoy unreliable narrators and detailed character studies.
I received an ARC of this book from Edelweiss and Penguin Publishing Group in exchange for an honest review.
The Witch Elm by Tana French is a 2018 Viking Books publication.
Luck. Toby has never really considered his, until now. He’s always had an easy go of things, able to talk himself out of any potential trouble or situation with his easy charm. But, Toby’s luck has changed overnight. First, he gets into serious trouble with his boss, then his home is broken into, and he is beaten within an inch of his life.
While his parents and faithful, adoring girlfriend are rock solid support systems, Toby is interrogated about the robbery, almost as if he is the perpetrator and not the victim. If that weren’t bad enough, Toby gets word his uncle has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. With the dual purpose of adjusting to his new normal and to help in the care of his uncle, Toby moves into the family ancestral home, along with his girlfriend. Toby’s two cousins whom he has seen little of over the years, are also in attendance. When one of his cousin’s children makes a ghastly discovery in the garden, Toby’ luck goes from bad to worse. Toby is suddenly quite vulnerable, especially with his memory lapses making it difficult for him to alibi himself. It looks like Toby’s luck may have finally run completely out…
I have loved Tana French since ‘In the Woods’ and have read nearly all of her books since then. I was aware this book was not a part of the Dublin Murder Squad series, but I was super excited to see what French may have in store for me with this stand alone novel. I love TF's style and it is obvious she has some serious writing chops. However, this one was a huge letdown.
The story got off to a strong start. Toby’s struggles to overcome the physical and psychological trauma he endured is very compelling and realistic. However, I wasn’t sure if I could trust Toby. As the detectives play games with him, I wondered who was behind the break in. Did it have to do with the trouble Toby got himself into at work? Why such a severe beating?
I spent the first half of the book wondering when the crime elements would heat up, thinking this was the main thread of the story. Then somewhere around the midway mark, the center shifts away from that thread and lo and behold, there is a real live murder mystery to solve.
Unfortunately, too much time was wasted getting to this part. The story moved so slowly, I started getting a little fidgety. The plot became knotty and cumbersome, and the pace never picked up, tempting me to do the unthinkable- mark a Tana French novel down as a DNF.
I think I understood some of the deeper aspects of the story, such as, how we view ourselves compared to how others see us, how memory plays a role in our lives, how our actions, or inactions often have consequences we are not aware of, as we go merrily along our way. Every action has a reaction, as they say.
In the end, I plodded onward, but there was something seriously off about the book’s structure, and that ending was utterly depressing. Yes, one might have a different point of view on that, but I’m going with the glass half empty on this one. It pains me to rate this one so low, but sadly, it just didn’t work for me.
4.25 Stars* (rounded down)
There is something about the feeling I get before reading another Tana French novel that calms me and makes me want to sit in a big old comfy chair, with a cushy pillow and a lush blankie surrounding me. I just know that I’m going to be settling in for an in-depth read with highly intelligent, well thought out, interesting characters and I immediately prepare myself. I grab a nice warm cuppa and before I know it, hours have gone by and I am in the thick of it. Such was the case with “The Witch Elm.”
I have read every book Tana French has ever written, so I knew what I was getting myself into. The slower build of the storyline, delving into every aspect of the characters’ personas and their machinations - which you either love or hate. I happen to love this - it makes me feel like I know her characters inside and out - I understand them like the back of my hand and I feel like I could live in their backyard, except for the fact that they all live in Ireland and I don’t! LOL.
“The Witch Elm” is a standalone - a blend of literary fiction / a mystery, not a police procedural or a detective story, unlike her other novels to date. This one is different and it feels quite sinister, even from the very beginning. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, on edge, stomach clenched. The characters are quirky, strange, hard to trust and frankly, a little slimy - and that my friends is where it gets interesting. Even up till the last second, I was never sure what was real and what wasn’t, who to trust or whether or not my instincts were right or not. C’est la vie.
Everything has always gone Toby’s way. He’s just that kind of guy. You’ve met him before, you know, that good looking guy with the fairly successful job and the sly smile who can talk his way out of anything? That is exactly what Toby does – until one night when his apartment gets burgled and he gets assaulted. Afterwards, Toby suffers from neurological deficits, including memory loss, loss of function in his left arm, his hand and one of his legs. Frustrated, Toby knows that his life will never be the same.
Unfortunately, this just isn’t a good year for Toby’s family – shortly after his assault, Toby’s Uncle Hugo suffers a stroke and is unable to take care of himself. The family is in bits about it, so Toby goes to look after him. Every weekend at the Ivy House, his cousins Susanna and Leon and the rest of his family come round. Everyone noshes on food, chills out by the fire, tells stories and reminisces. Then IT happens. While playing, Zach, one of Susanna’s kids, find a Skull inside “The Witch Elm” past the garden. A human skull, no joke. From the moment the Detectives arrive, nothing is the same. Of course all hell breaks loose, but then, what did you expect?
This story plays out in a way that only Tana French can spin it. Back and forth it goes, like a pendulum swinging, faster and faster and I, for one, grew desperate, afraid of where the tale was going to take me. There was however, no reason for me to fear, Tana French was at the helm and she spun this web masterfully. I was all in from the first. These characters, like them or not, grabbed my attention and held on tight. I recommend this to readers who love the “feel” of a great book… how it feels deep in the bones (pun intended) when the characters sink in, when you hear their conversations in your head and you know every facet of their personality and you just can’t shake ‘em, no matter how hard you try.
Tana French – in case it is not obvious, you are one of my go to authors. I am desperately waiting for a sequel to “In the Woods” – I need to know what Rob has been up to! Also, I cannot wait for another Antoinette Conway / Stephen Moran novel. I have mini-crushes on Rob and Stephen.. so help a girl out, would you please? Thank you!
A huge thank you to Edelweiss, Penguin Publishing Group, Viking and Tana French for a complimentary copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.
Published on Edelweiss, Goodreads, Twitter and Instagram on 10.25.18.
Lucky and genial Toby meets the guys for a night out to celebrate his circumvention of a potentially career-wrecking incident at work. Afterwards, he is nearly beaten to death by intruders and his life changes dramatically. He lands at Ivy House to care for his terminally ill uncle and to recover from his own serious injuries. A skull is found in the Wych Elm which takes this finely crafted novel into the events of the past as experienced by the participants looking back from the present day. Impaired and confused (or is he?), Toby tries to unravel the mystery of the skull which leads him to question who he was, who he believes himself to be, as well as, who he has become. His familial relationships are equally as distorted. This book crackles with realistic characterizations. At times, I felt as if I was listening to my husband and his friends good-naturedly jab at each other including that eye roll inducing middle school mentality that that tends to resurface when they are together. While a mystery exists, this book is more of a deep dive into the human psyche and an exploration of the perception of events from different points of view. I was transfixed.