Full disclosure: Tana French is one of my favorite authors. It’s pretty impossible for me not to love anything she writes. So, this will be anything but an unbiased review.
With that out of the way, this was a really interesting book. It went to places I did not expect, which is classic Tana French and what I love so much about her writing. The change Toby goes through and where he ends up would not have worked with any other author. But let’s get to the review.
Synopsis (from Goodreads):
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.
Toby is kind of an asshole. He doesn’t understand why people complain about their lives or why they can’t just talk themselves out of things like he can. That all changes when a couple of guys break into his house and beat the shit out of him. Toby ends up in the hospital with little memory of the events that got him there and is feeling quite sorry for himself.
Once he gets out of the hospital and realizes he cannot live in his house anymore without constant anxiety, he moves in with his Uncle Hugo. Hugo is dealing with a most likely fatal illness and the family wants someone to be there to help him out. So, Toby and his girlfriend, Melissa move in with him.
And things go pretty smoothly. Toby, Hugo, and Melissa fall into a routine. They listen to music, make dinners, read books, and Toby and Hugo figure out other people’s genealogies.
That is until Toby’s cousin’s kids find a skull in the garden.
What happens after is a swirl of paranoia, anxiety, suspense, family tension, and ugliness. Tana French weaves Toby’s family’s past with his present situation in a brilliantly skillful way. Toby starts off the book thinking he knows everything and throughout the story, he learns just how untrue that is.
Toby thinks he knows his cousins as well as he knows himself, but he couldn’t be more wrong. The Witch Elm does a magnificent job of making you think you know what’s going on (just like Toby) and then flipping the switch, causing you to lose your mind with excitement once it’s all finally revealed.
This may be Tana French’s first standalone book, but it’s still a crime/mystery/suspenseful af story. There are detectives and there is a murder to be solved and like French’s other books, the narrative is hyper-focused on one character. But it’s also about family, relationships, the effects of intimidation/harassment, and above all: secrets.
I don’t want to give any spoilers away because even a hint would ruin the experience that comes with reading this story yourself. That being said, you may find yourself, like I did, not liking Toby. I think that might be on purpose but it’s hard to know the author’s intentions.
Toby is just so goddamn privileged and almost refuses to acknowledge the bad things that happen to others in this world. I don’t know if I’ve ever disliked a main character while also completely loving his character development. He’s kind of awful but the way he develops is captivating.
The other characters were equally as brilliant as was the plot and the overall narrative. But Tana French has always been a miracle worker in my eyes.
My only critique is that I thought the story started off a little slow. It took some time for Toby to finally get to Hugo’s house, but once that happened the story’s pace was much better. I am giving The Witch Elm 4 out of 5 stars. If you’ve liked Tana French’s other novels, I really think you’ll love this book as well.
The Witch Elm comes out October 9, 2018
Thank you to Edelweiss and Viking Books for the free ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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