If there’s any topic that has the ability to stir the pot in today’s boiling political climate, it’s the idea of entitled white men. As such, Tana French takes a significant risk in her new novel “The Witch Elm” by focusing on the well-off, charismatic Toby Hennessy, whose privileged life hits a bump in the road. Luckily, her gamble results in something timely and nuanced. A fan favorite in the mystery and crime genre, French has won acclaim for her Dublin Murder Squad Series, but “The Witch Elm” marks her first stand-alone suspense novel to date. Toby, a publicist who has managed to get through life with the help of his handsome, charming smile, finds his luck has run dry as he is launched head-first into a high-stakes tale of familial tensions, disease, betrayal, suspicion, and murder. Despite the hokey title — let’s be honest, it’s more reminiscent of an R.L Stine novel from the ’90s than a sophisticated adult drama — and tiring 450 page-count, the plot immerses the reader into an eerie maze of uneasiness sprinkled with surprises, and French’s style certainly reminds any aspiring author what it means to craft believable, psychologically deep characters.
Toby opens the novel with the assertion, “I’ve always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person,” going on to explain he’s avoided messy breakups, car accidents, drug addictions, and even braces. From that point on, the higher powers seem set on proving him wrong as Toby is beaten senseless by robbers and is later roped into a murder investigation stained by dark family secrets of physical abuse and sexual assault. Since sustained brain injuries wipe out large chunks of his younger memories, Toby’s ignorance of the tortures that his cousins Susanna and Leon faced as teenagers seem genuinely excusable, but the parallels to society are eerily strong. As the #MeToo movement continues to accelerate, Tana French provides the American public with her answer to one of its most pressing questions: What is going through the minds of average men as they are finally made aware of all the ugliness and abuse going on around them? In Toby’s case, his sense of truth and reality start to crumble, turning a man with swagger and confidence into a helpless, sometimes hollow shell. Towards the end of the novel, Toby explains, “My own life blurred and smeared in front of my eyes; my outlines had been scrubbed out of existence,” possibly predicting current society’s unsettling fate in the midst of this massive wake-up call.
Although the political timeliness should be intriguing enough, French’s engaging style and brilliant character descriptions will make any college student look back at her attempts at creative writing with a crinkled nose of disgust. When it comes to Toby’s relationship with his girlfriend Melissa, she perfectly captures intimate details like “the soft breathing curl of her in bed, her hair tickling my chin; lazy Saturday brunch in our favorite café, walk by the canal to see the swans, Melissa swinging our clasped hands.” Tana French’s delicate descriptions demonstrate the power of “show, don’t tell” writing. Even though this novel is high-stakes and at some points thrilling, French never shies away from these specific, concrete details which ultimately intensify the colors of the image she’s trying to paint.
Although none of her characters are radically unique or total diversions from the status quo, French still manages to avoid clichés or unoriginal tropes. While a stereotypical description of Melissa’s untight, goody-goody husband Tom would normally trigger some eye rolls, the idea that “he brings out the irresistible urge to warn him about drop bears and dihydrogen monoxide” is simple and brilliant — quirky enough to make the reader laugh but observantly accurate enough to perfectly capture Tom’s stick-in-the-mud personality. On a sadder note, French’s portrayal of Toby’s helpless existence recuperating in the hospital also opens a window into the darker parts of the human psyche. Trapped under “the vortex’s hold,” Toby’s descent into a pit of serious despair demonstrates the raw and painful reality that comes with a lack of agency.
The only serious weakness in this psychologically fascinating novel is its length. Clocking in at just over 450 pages, “The Witch Elm” has the wiggle room to fully develop its characters and construct a vivid, fully-imaginable world, but perhaps the novel stretches its limbs a little too far. Of course, any book takes time to develop suspense, allowing the audience’s heart to pound in anticipation until they finally put their guard down just in time for the big, unsettling surprise. The novel’s ending is charged with this electric energy, but unfortunately, the beginning lets the audience sit with their defenses lowered for far too long. Toby’s recovery in the hospital after the break-in and weeks spent visiting his uncle Hugo have some heartbreaking moments and interesting commentary about hospital care, but it honestly drags on for too long. When Susanna’s bratty son finds a human skull in the wych elm — not to be confused with the title of the novel, although the pun is almost definitely intended — behind Hugo’s house, it feels more like a shock from an AED machine than a natural progression of the suspense story. Although from an aesthetic standpoint, it’d be hard to see some of these beautiful sentences go, cutting some of the gorgeous but unnecessary fluff might keep the electricity consistent throughout the entire murder mystery.
It’s a pleasure to read a book that caters to the messy problems on society’s mind without compromising any artistic integrity. If the idea of needing some page-turning endurance in order to get to a glorious payoff isn’t intimidating, definitely give Tana French and her latest novel the proper chance they deserve.