Posted in Book review, Books, Reading

Book review: The Witch Elm by Tana French

The Witch ElmThe Witch Elm by Tana French

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.

View all my reviews

Posted in Book review

Book review: The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood

Three of five stars

On the way home after his shift at the care home where he worked as a nurse’s assistant, 20-year-old Oscar Lowe wandered into a chapel on the grounds of Cambridge University one day to listen to the organ music.  After the service, as young men often do, he began chatting with an attractive young woman, Iris Bellwether, whose brother Eden was the organist.  From such chance meetings do lives change.

Iris and Eden were products of privilege: boarding school, music lessons, prestigious university education, with neither a thought to money nor concept of cost.  Oscar’s life couldn’t have been more different.  But his and Iris’s mutual attraction transcended the difference in their social backgrounds, and they swiftly fell in love.  Iris’s and Eden’s small group of friends made room in their closed circle for Oscar.  Eden, on the other hand, remained aloof, disapproving, with a penchant for insults so subtle Oscar wasn’t sure he actually heard them, or if he was being overly sensitive.

Over time, Iris began to confide in Oscar her worries about Eden: the childhood mistreatments, the obsessive behavior, the sheer hubris of his belief that he can heal people through music.  Convinced he suffered from a severe psychological disorder, she wondered if there was someone who could help:  in secret, of course, because Eden would never willingly subject himself to therapy.  Together, she and Oscar came up with a plan to have Eden evaluated, thus setting in motion the beginning of the end, and the tragedy that opens and closes the book.

Benjamin Wood’s debut novel is beautifully written, and somewhat reminiscent of Donna Tartt’s A Secret History.  He captures the opulence and arrogance of the Bellwethers’ lifestyle as seen through Oscar’s eyes, with echoes of Fitzgerald’s “The rich are different” ringing through the prose.  The living room at the Bellwether family home had “…the conscious extravagance of a hotel lobby;” Iris’s parents “…spent more money on cognac than most people could retire on.”  Oscar enjoys the luxury of becoming part of this privileged circle, but he is not seduced by it, and in the end, may be the only person who survives relatively undamaged.

Many thanks to Goodreads’ First Reads program for the opportunity to read this book.