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.
This is author Tana French’s seventh novel, and marks her first departure from her fantastic Dublin Murder Squad series. For The Witch Elm, French doesn’t stray too far from her distinctive style, and it’s clear that she feels the most comfortable when writing detective-style novels. Which is fine by me, since she’s amazing at it.
I’ve had a rather bad run of luck this year with thriller novels, but have always enjoyed French’s work. Her use of foreshadowing feels organically woven into the narrative, as opposed to awkwardly shoehorned in. By slowly building a sense of tension using small clues and a few shortly but intensely written passages, French ensures that when the plot reaches its climax, it feels like a genuine reveal as opposed to a cheat. I also have to give props to French for avoiding the horribly cliche “flackback” plot device that has been become nearly ubiquitous in modern thrillers. There is a reason I have never been disappointed by her novels, and her mature and richly descriptive writing style has a lot to do with that.
The main difference between The Witch Elm and French’s previous works is that the main narrative is written from a civilian’s viewpoint, rather than a detective. I did find myself missing the police perspective. Toby, as the main character, just wasn’t terribly sympathetic. He is privileged, entitled, and oblivious to the struggles of those around him. His love for his girlfriend Melissa was a saving point, but their relationship always seemed a little too good to be true. Hugo, Leo, and Susanna as the supporting characters were more interesting than Toby, and I would have liked to know more about their lives.
I won’t give away too much of the main plot, only that I kept expecting French to take a turn for the supernatural. Ivy House somehow gives off a misty, Gothic feel from the outer suburbs of Dublin. The creepy atmosphere of The Witch Elm reminded me of the forest passages from In The Woods, which literally gave me goosebumps when I was reading them. I would love to see Tana French venture into the world of horror. It would definitely be a combination of two of my favorite elements.
My rating: 4/5