The Witch Elm is an impressive novel. It’s a riotous exercise in prose and character and suspense whose ending literally left me breathless. But it has one flaw that has disappointed hardcore Tana French fans: a suspect as the narrator. I myself didn’t particularly mind but apparently most longtime fans did. They yearned for her usual complex detective protagonist while lighting up websites with irritated reviews. They were hoping for what they liked, a Dublin Murder Squad personality, and didn’t get it. I thought French’s approach was fresh and worked well, but I’m not a crime fiction aficionado. I’ll try to explain, without spoilers, why I think this energetic departure was ultimately a success.
Language on Fire
First, I read as a writer, I can’t help it. I’m watching for sweetly flowing phrases and I’m watching for odd adverbs and clunky sentences. So, French’s tight, tumbling prose blew me away. An electricity crackles through this story like a long spark of lightning. She weaves in obscure words, inventive descriptions, and verbs like “judder” into a narrator that’s so expertly rendered you forget he’s a fabricated person. The language pushed me through about 162 pages. Why 162? Well, that’s when the plot launched off a cliff.
A Creepy Premise
At this point in the novel (and this is on the jacket so it’s no surprise), two of the family’s grandchildren find a skull in the hollow of a tree in the back garden. Now, I haven’t read that many detective novels but I’ve read a bunch and I can’t recall another book where a body has been stuffed inside a tree. It’s inventive and unsettling. That French mentioned this scenario a long time ago in an utterly different context in In The Woods leads me to believe the image stayed with her for years. This book is the product of that idea unfurled and explored.
A Subtle Slow Plot
Some online reviewers have complained at the book’s slow-moving plot. I understand. I don’t care for literary writing where the paragraphs are as long as the page. But I can forgive it here because when the plot does kick in, it’s fascinating. After the kids find the skull, detectives show up of course and begin investigating. They swoop in and out as the family processes how in the world a dead body ended up in their tree. Many conversations occur among Toby the narrator, his girlfriend, his uncle Hugo, and his cousins. In long involved exchanges, they talk casually but what they say is loaded with meaning. I tried to decipher every word for a clue about who killed the person in the tree. The puzzle kept my interest.
Ultimately, the long stretches of dialogue mostly occur at Uncle Hugo’s place, Ivy House, which can arguably feel claustrophobic and painstaking. An online reviewer mentioned how the book felt like a One Act play. I can’t dispute that. It’s true.
Vivid Character Portraits
But within that framework, we learn many lurid details about Ivy House and Toby and his cousins. There are several suspects, all credible in their potential for murdering. French deep dives into each’s personality, masterfully leaving us with more questions than answers. Though Toby’s cousin Susanna seems like a responsible mother, she also went through a wild phase and is sharp-sighted. Toby’s other cousin Leon seems volatile and repressively angry but his lack of courage doesn’t fit in with an aggressor’s profile. Uncle Hugo seems just plainly reserved and guileless. We’re guessing until the end.
A Broader Readership
Until now, all of French’s Dublin Murder Squad novels have featured detective protagonists. This one is narrated by an easygoing young guy. The police are on the periphery as outsiders. So, unless you delight in this tricky family, you may not like the book. If you’re open to a crime fiction novel not narrated by a detective in the traditional way, you might like it.
My One Disappointment
The ending to this story is shocking and yet fitting. It’s hard to discuss without giving it away so I won’t go into detail. But I noticed that one of the characters, very similar in tone and style to a character in In the Woods, ends up with a depressing, ruined life. That, to me, was a bit of a predictable repeat. As I’m halfway through Faithful Place now, my third French book, I’m wondering if I’ll see that crutch again. It may make me step back from the novels. But for now, even though The Witch Elm’s conclusion is a bit unrealistically and unnecessarily dark, it’s a flaw I can forgive. The novel’s extraordinary construction of language and character created an intensely suspenseful story that I couldn’t wait to see resolved. I look forward to what Tana French will write next.
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