My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I have yet to read a Tana French book that I didn’t love, or at least like very much. The Witch Elm is no exception.
Toby has led a charmed life: popular, handsome, athletic in school; hip job, beautiful girlfriend, nice flat as an adult. There have been no hiccups worth mentioning throughout his life. Toby never even thought of his life as “lucky” until, after an evening out with “the lads,” he walks into a burglary in progress in his flat. The burglars nearly beat him to death.
As Toby struggles to recover, he decides to stay with his uncle Hugo — recently diagnosed with brain cancer — to help care for Hugo and further his own healing process in the quiet of the family estate. His girlfriend Melissa accompanies him. They settle into an easy routine: Melissa commutes to her job in town, Toby helps Hugo with his genealogy research, the rest of the family — aunts, uncles, cousins, parents — congregate on Sundays for a congenial lunch that lasts most of the day. It’s all very homey and comfortable…and then the children discover a human skull in the bottom of the garden.
All congeniality and comfort disappears in the path of the police investigation. And Toby — whose memory is unreliable with gaping holes after his near-fatal beating — does not come over well in the eyes of the detectives on the case. Convinced he is their prime suspect, Toby decides to do a little investigating on his own.
The novel sets a meandering, leisurely pace: we are nearly a third of the way through the book before the body in the garden makes an appearance. This is perfectly in keeping with storytelling from Toby’s point of view: Toby is damaged and it takes him considerable time to process information. He often has to wander down several mental tracks to get to a particular conclusion. The languid pacing didn’t give me as much of an issue as it did some reviewers, although I will admit to the middle third of the novel being somewhat of a slog. Regardless, the slow build-up in tension and deliberate spacing of the reveals worked for me.
Only one piece of action didn’t ring true — can’t discuss because it’s a spoiler, but it takes place close to the end and sets up the final drama of the story. When I read it, I thought: “No way, I can’t see that person reacting in such a fashion.” But even with that quibble, I was satisfied by the ultimate resolution.
Nice job, Ms. French. Bring on the next novel, please.