The Witch Elm by Tana French reads less like a thriller and more like a mystery. Even then, it is less a whodunit and more of a search for the correct psychopath. All of this with elements of a family drama, a coming-of-age reckoning, and a reflection on the idea of memory. Toby’s story doesn’t appear to be complex, and yet there are more layers to it than a good lasagna. And yet, you will spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out just how big a tree needs to be to hide a man.
Ms. French puts poor Toby through the shit in The Witch Elm. Not only does he face a brutal assault at the hands of burglars in his home, but he must also deal with his favorite uncle slowly dying from brain cancer. Because that is not enough for one person to experience in a matter of weeks, she then adds a murder mystery at the family home on top of all that. Yet, for the most part, Toby handles all of it better than I would on my best day. Just thinking about dealing with all that is enough to send me into an anxiety-filled paralysis.
As most of her novels are more character than plot-driven, this is exactly the point. She takes Toby and pushes him to see what his breaking point is. How she does this is brilliant, fascinating, and cruel, as she questions the very nature of memory. She starts with the obvious with Toby’s memory loss due to the brain injuries he suffers. Her shift towards the frailty of memory as a whole is subtle and yet terrifying, as she points out again and again that two people will remember two very different events. While Toby questions the very nature of his relationships with his cousins, you too can’t help but question the validity of all of your memories. Eventually, the term unreliable witness has a completely different meaning as you watch Toby repeatedly reconcile his memories with the stories others tell him.
Because Ms. French is a writing master, she doesn’t stop with memory though. She throws in the complications of family dynamics. Here too, Toby realizes that the relationships he thought were so important may not have the same importance to other family members. This hurts in any relationship, but there is something particularly bittersweet when this happens among family. For Toby, it throws yet another level of tension into an already intense situation.
The Witch Elm is the type of story where the whodunit is less important than the reasons why and what happens next. That doesn’t mean that the whodunit reveal isn’t chilling. In fact, it is so matter-of-fact as to be very disturbing upon reflection. Still, after everything Toby experiences, everything we learn about the reasoning behind the murder is essentially anticlimactic. While not totally predictable, one can infer a lot before the big reveal, and the whole scene is less than satisfactory, which again is Ms. French’s plan.
If anything, The Witch Elm is a tough read that reiterates that life rarely provides satisfactory answers to its problems. I expected the intensity and the level of disturbing given the other French novels I read. I was not prepared for the emotional aspect of the story. Toby bears so much, and you can’t help but empathize with him as he waffles between anger, grief, confusion, anxiety, and everything in between. All while obsessing over the size of that damn tree.