The Witch Elm

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 01 Jan 2019

Member Reviews

Thanks to NetGalley for providing a free digital ARC in exchange for an unbiased review.
Confession: big Tana French fan. I got hooked after reading The Likeness on vacation a few years back, and since then I usually end up reading the newest title every summer while on vacation. Ditto for this year.
I was a little nervous going in because I knew this was a standalone, but the tone of the novel does not suffer for it. French's skill with an unreliable narrator has not dimmed: Toby is an affable enough chap, in his privileged golden boy way. After surviving a brutal home invasion that leaves him with a brain injury, he ends up moving in with his dying uncle to help caretake him in the later stages of his terminal cancer. When a skull appears in the yard, found by young cousins in an old wych elm, he has no idea to whom it might belong, but it turns out to be a boy that Toby was friendly with who disappeared after high school, a presumed suicide.
It becomes clear that although Toby's memory of those years is beyond hazy, the dead boy was not a great guy, more of an aggressive, relentless bully, really, especially towards females and gays; specifically, Toby's cousins.
This book explores the vagaries of memory, especially in the aftermath of brain trauma. (view spoiler)[Is Toby a murderer, as he comes to believe, after several uncomfortable, pressure-filled conversations with his cousins, who have a very different memory of the summer of the disappearance? (hide spoiler)]
I read this book avidly, as I do all French's books, but the ending felt like too much happened too quickly, and none of it good. I don't like things all wrapped up neatly with a big happy pink bow, but I felt like Toby acted out of character in the final chapter of the book. Still, if the story is designed to explore what happens to the brain post-injury, perhaps the point is that anyone who has suffered such an injury can act well out of turn, with devastating results.
A good, solid read (but I still miss my Dublin Murder Squad!).
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I really enjoy Tana French. This is a stand alone book, not one of her Dublin murder squad books. The narrator is likable but even he is not sure which memories he can believe. Captivating!
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To answer the first question that everyone keeps asking me: This is a standalone novel. It is not a part of the Dublin Murder squad series. The Witch Elm is a slowburn suspense that you will deeply sink into. It is perfect for book clubs because there is a lot to analyze and discuss–starting with French’s brilliant choice for the main character–but it is also readable for just the ride of the mystery. It starts with Toby, a young man who has a good life. Pretty much always has. But after a mistake at work, and an assault, his life dramatically changes and he decides to recover at his uncle’s home. The home he spent plenty of time at as a kid. The home where a skeleton is discovered… If you like character driven mysteries don’t miss this one. French is an absolutely excellent crime writer who creates incredibly real characters while plunging you deep into their lives and stories. You won’t even realize you’re on a hell of a ride until the drop is below you…
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There is plenty to like about this book: very descriptive writing, well-developed characters, intricate plot. It was compelling enough for me to keep reading to the end, and I enjoyed the experience. However, having read all of the Dublin Murder Squad books, I feel this stand-alone falls short of the author's regular storytelling ability.

Character development is an important appeal factor for me, but they need to be characters that I like, or at least that I can understand. While Ms. French does a good job of developing her characters, I just couldn't like Toby. I've read a couple of interviews with the author regarding this book in the hopes that they would shed some light and help me to better understand the story. And, from what I read, it sounds like Toby was written the way he was on purpose. Some readers will feel sympathy for him and his situation; I couldn't.

I did like a few of the characters (Melissa, Uncle Hugo), but the three cousins (Toby, Susana, Leon) were annoying. After thinking about it a bit, I guess it boils down to the fact that Melissa and Uncle Hugo were the type of people to believe in others and see the best in them, while the three cousins seemed to be more self-absorbed, calculating, and inclined to assume the worst. Perhaps because the story is told from Toby's perspective, and his cousins are the people he knows most intimately in life, we get a deeper look at them as people - flaws and all - making it harder to like them as much as those individuals in whom Toby mostly sees only the good.

So, after a bit of reflection, I can understand the underlying factors at play. But it doesn't change my overall experience, which to me deserved 3 stars.
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The Witch Elm by Tana French is a stand-alone novel that is not part of her Dublin Murder Squad series.  This book features Toby as the main character and it made me realize just how few books I'm reading where that is the case.  Toby is brutally attacked one night in his apartment and spends quite a long time recovering in the hospital before he moves in to help care for his newly diagnosed with cancer uncle.  Not long after Toby moves in with his uncle a decomposing body is discovered in a tree in the backyard.  The mystery of who and how the body came to be there is the crux of the story.  A twisty thriller sure to keep you up late reading!  Read and enjoy!
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"The Witch Elm" by Tana French, Viking, 464 pages, Oct. 9, 2018.

Toby Hennessy does PR for a small art gallery in Ireland. He has lived an overprivileged, charmed life.

When he manages to avert a near-disaster at work that could have gotten him fired, he goes out to celebrate with his two best friends. They drink too much. Toby makes it home safely, but wakes at night to find two men burglarizing his apartment.

Toby makes the mistake of fighting them and is severely beaten. He suffers brain damage. After his release from the hospital, Toby learns that his uncle Hugo has terminal brain cancer.

Hugo, a genealogist, was always very good to Toby and his cousins, Leon and Susanna. The cousins are as close as siblings. Toby and his girlfriend, Melissa, move in with Hugo to help him. 

During a Sunday dinner with the extended family, Susanna's children find a skull in an old witch elm in Hugo's yard. The adults are convinced that it is from someone who died many years ago. As the police try to unravel the mystery, Toby begins to question his life.

Toby is an unsympathetic character and has a lot of internal monologues, making the story move slowly. Despite those drawbacks, this is an excellent novel with some major twists and an amazing ending. What happened, why and the resulting actions are fascinating. 

Tana French's plotting and characters are outstanding. She wrote six books about the Dublin Murder Squad, which is one of my favorite police series. "The Witch Elm" isn't one of the series. This is the only one told from the view of a crime victim, not the police.

In accordance with FTC guidelines, the Advanced Readers Copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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Shelves: arc, audiobooks, crime-mystery
I recommend knowing as little as possible about this book when you start it. Not even the jacket copy, if you can. While I almost always recommend this for crime novels, this one in particular is quite slow and the typical summary gives you at least one big twist from the early sections that is best enjoyed cold. However, this makes reviewing the book very hard because it does many things so exquisitely but it's hard for me to talk about them without more spoiling than I think a reader should have. So my compromise is that I will give you these first two paragraphs for people who haven't read the book and just want to see if they will like it. The rest is to luxuriate in with me once you're done. Deal?

This is French's first standalone, and her first book that isn't a procedural with a detective protagonist. It's still a crime novel, with two very different crimes at its heart, and the questions of who and why are just as critical here as in any detective novel. It moves at a much slower pace, but it still brings you much of what French does best. A complex character study of a first-person narrator, thrilling scenes of dialogue that can go on and on and keep you riveted, a setting that is as much a character as the people who populate it. Give it a little patience, there were stretches of it when I thought, "Hmm, maybe this is a 4-star book, I'm not sure it's quite at her best." And then I changed my mind. This is a book that rewards you for being patient.
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Tana French is just so legit. I feel weird giving this 3 stars when it’s written way better than some other 3 star books I’ve rated, but for this one the plot itself was what held me back from loving it. This plot in the hands of another, less polished writer could have gone horribly wrong. There’s a lot going on here, with a burglary and a murder and memory loss and brain cancer and all kinds of things - it all comes together in the end, but for a majority of the book it felt like two totally separate storylines that deserved their own books. Most of the characters were really nuanced and intriguing (Hugo was a mystery I wanted to unfold, and you just knew there was more to Susanna than her stay-at-home mom facade), but I had a hard time with the narrator (Toby) especially towards the end. It was hard at times to empathize with him despite his unfortunate circumstances, but I think that was the intention all along so I’m not sure that’s a negative. Despite my issues with it, it was still a compelling page turner. Once again, French left me feeling thoroughly unnerved well after I had read the last page - if that’s not a sign of a solid psychological mystery, I don’t know what is.
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"The Witch Elm" is a mystery about how this skeleton got into this tree, as well as how our main character Toby is connected to it. But ultimately it is more a story about family, memory, and how our perceptions of reality can change. Toby is an unreliable narrator not in that he is deliberately hiding facts from the reader, but in that he has gaps in his memory because of time and because of a traumatic brain injury sustained at the start of the book. French did a very good job of integrating the burglary and attack into the plot without making it feel purely plot driven, as there was a slow build up to it and then a sustained period of immediate consequences after that lingered well before the main drive of the plot at Toby's Uncle Hugo's home. And since Toby is constantly questioning his own memory, and his potential culpability in regards to the body in the tree, the reader also has to wonder whether or not we are following an innocent bystander caught up in a murder, or the murderer himself. But French is also very adept at presenting other characters who could also have a hand in murder, for many realistic and believable reasons. I quite enjoyed the mystery and seeing where it was going to go next.

I also very much enjoyed the family dynamic that Toby had with those around him, from his Uncle Hugo to his cousins Susanna and Leon. While the relationship with Susanna and Leon was a bit strained, be it because of their potential to be suspects to their differing views on how they should be dealing with their uncle to baggage from the past, it felt very real for a family with various dysfunctions. And Toby's relationship with Hugo is quite lovely, as Hugo is dying of a brain tumor and Toby, having his own medical set backs and problems with cognition, really connects with him. They all did feel like a real family with it's ups and downs, and this aspect of the book was probably the strongest for me.

I think that the main quibbles I had were with the length of the story. It takes a little bit of time to get started, for one thing, and while I understand why it does (as mentioned above, French is careful to make the attack and break in feel like more than just a device to get Toby's mind foggy), I felt like it dragged its feet a bit. I found myself tempted to skip ahead to the family estate, and while I didn't do that I do think that it took just a little too long to get all of the set up into place. And then it went on a bit longer than it had to, with a tacked on moment at the end that didn't feel lit it needed to be there. I don't wish to spoil it so I won't say what it is here, but a new moment of conflict with very dire consequences happens well after we've found out the solution to the Wych Elm mystery at hand. And I didn't quite understand why it had to happen at all. It felt unnecessary and it didn't add much to the plot. 

But all that said, Tana French is still an author who knows how to write an atmospheric mystery with some fascinating characters. "The Witch Elm" was a fun detour from her "Dublin Murder Squad" series, and I will be very curious to see if she is going to write more stand alone novels down the line, because this one stood on it's own two feet pretty handily. 

This Review will be posted at www.thelibraryladies.com on 10/9/2018
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A wonderful, standalone novel from Ms. French, an extraordinarily talented writer. What I enjoyed, was how we are dropped into Toby's life at a life-changing moment, though both he and the reader don't know what's about to happen. Toby raises the questions, "What if I had just gone to Melissa's apartment that night?" This novel has three different phases, and we go through the phases along with Toby. I've read other reviews that call Toby a jerk (and worse) because he was unaware and unsympathetic to other people's pain and struggles. I struggle with that simplistic judgment. Each individual has their own point of view and way in which they view the world, and that is informed by their surroundings and experiences. No two people will ever look at the same situation and have identical thoughts and feelings about it. If they did, I would be worried. I like how Ms. French approached Toby's character and how deep in his head we were able to get after his accident, that I found myself just as angry on his behalf at how his life had changed. I felt his confusion as we realized he had been viewed by others in a way that was completely incompatible with how he viewed himself and his life. As with all of Ms. French's novels, this book does not shy away from the gritty and uncomfortable aspects of life and the delicate relationships between people. This book was part mystery and part philosophical contemplation on who we are fundamentally at our core when everything superficial is stripped away. I really enjoyed this story and as always, I looked forward to Ms. French's future novels.

I received a copy of this title from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review
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This is a 5 star read based just on the quality of writing alone. The author’s words follow a man’s mental state from normal stability through partial loss of memory to his questioning who he really is. It is a study of relationships between family and friends and questions how much can one person really know another. And it reflects on how one small inconsequential event can affect so many lives for years into the future. A wonderful, engrossing novel!

Thanks to NetGalley for the ARC to review.
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Here it is- I think Tana French fans are going to really be split on this book. I'm personally really split on this book. I loved the last quarter of it, and read that last quarter probably faster than I did the rest of the book combined, but that might actually be because the first 3/4 of the book moved fairly slowly. And I've been fangirling Tana French's books for a lot of years now, so I'm used and appreciate her clever pacing. But I found myself really frustrated with the first quarter of the book, because when events are mentioned in the book description and then it takes nearly a third of the book before they actually happen, I find myself waiting impatiently for said event to happen and for the story to move on from what's already been described before I even started the book. 

Aside from that complaint, I did genuinely enjoy this book. It has what I appreciate most about Tana French's writing, which is a great combination of character development and character introspection, as well as a solid story. Once I settled into the story, there wasn't a chance I was going to stop reading until the end. It's really got a lot of the same elements as the author's previous books- it just takes a little time to adjust.
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This author is a favorite at the library and many are waiting for her latest novel to be in print.  Toby is a happy-go-lucky charmer who doesn't worry about things because most of what you worry about never comes to pass.  But one night after celebrating a mistake at work that didn't turn out to harm him, he is beaten by burglars.  Recovery is long and hard and he has to cope with the fact that his live has changed forever.  While at the family home, a skull is found and as detectives get involved Toby must face the reality that his past might not be the same as he remembers it.  So what is his life to be? Neither his past or his future are as he envisioned.
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Thank you, Netgalley, for this arc.

I've only read three of Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series, and this book seemed to have a bit of that same flavor. The book seemed to start off slow, but then after the main character, Toby, was attacked things definitely started to pick up. I really liked Toby's uncle, Hugo, and Toby's love interest, Melissa - I even liked Toby's cousins, Leon and Susanna. However, this book seemed to be unnecessarily long - the chapters seemed to go on FOREVER. The story took on a few twists that I hadn't been looking out for, and I don't know how I was envisioning it ending, but it sure wasn't that way. I will probably continue to read Tana French's work. This new standalone wasn't stellar, but it did keep me engaged.
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https://feellearnwonder.com/2018/09/28/book-review-the-witch-elm/

Author: Tana French
Genre: Mystery
Pub Date: October 9, 2018
FLW Rating: 4/5

How do you review the QUEEN? Tana French has been my favorite author for my whole adult reading life, so I feel a little wrong writing anything but a glowing review. This is also a tricky one to review since I’ve been so in love with French’s Dublin Murder Series, and this was her first standalone novel. This book was totally different than her others (mainly that you didn’t follow the lives of ANY detectives!) but I totally enjoyed it in its own right — I’m just also ready to read another Dublin Murder Series book next. 🙂

The Witch Elm is a dark and moody mystery that demonstrates the fact that you never know you can trust — including yourself, your long-term partner, or your closest family members. At the opening of the novel, Toby experienced a break-in and assault, leaving him helpless and with some potential permanent brain damage. While Toby is recovering by spending time with his dying uncle, a dead body is recovered at the house, and everyone in the family becomes a suspect. Written as less of a “Clue” who-done-it puzzle, and more of an internal psychological monologue, the reader follows along while Toby struggles to determine what he knows and what he’s tricked himself in to believing.

What Tana French does well (understatement of the century), in all books, is writing group dynamics. My favorite book of hers is The Likeness, in which one of the detectives actually goes undercover to investigate a murder by living with a group of the victims friends. (A few people I know have their issues with this one, because it’s pretty unrealistic, but I think it’s a perfect demonstration of how masterfully French writes group dynamics.) In The Witch Elm, the “group” explored was primarily Toby and his two cousins, who he grew up with. Suspicion was cast in all directions, and my favorite part of the book was trying to identify the motives of each character.

What I struggled with was the use of monologues throughout the books. In some cases, like Emma in the Night, I kind of love a big monologue reveal, but after a while in this book, I started to feel like it was just one big series of monologues. Additionally, it felt like the direction of these monologues changed suddenly — all of a sudden Toby would have an idea and begin a full reveal on his current theory, then something would come up and he would begin another. An unintended consequence was that it made the book feel like a TV series. I actually had a moment when I thought to myself “I can’t wait to get home, so I can keep watching my show!” and then remembered that it was a book. Ha! That’s never happened to me before.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book – the mystery and the drama I had been hoping for was present, and ultimately I got lost in the story and couldn’t wait to pick up the book to keep reading every time I had the chance. I read this book while traveling solo and since every time I opened it I felt submerged in their world, it was the perfect book to keep me company!

THIS BOOK COMES OUT OCTOBER 9TH! THANKS TO VIKING BOOKS AND NETGALLEY FOR MY ADVANCED COPY!
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Tana French is in no hurry to tell her story, and that it perfectly alright with me since her storytelling technique is utterly delicious! This amazing story has the feel of a dark southern gothic tale even though it takes place in Ireland. The atmosphere is so perfect and so thick that the few times I looked up from this book, it was hard to reconcile my actual whereabouts with what I expected to see. I often read a mystery/thriller and find the "surprise twist" at the end predictable and stale, but this book made me gasp in shock on multiple occasions with twists and turns I never saw coming. This is truly Tana French at her mind-boggling best. I loved every second.
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Tana French is a gifted mystery writer who always writes a creative and interesting novel with good characterization. She doesn't disappoint with The Witch Elm. The tugs and pulls that the main character experiences propels the reader along a journey that includes art deception, assault, a hidden body, and extended family.
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An intriguing story with lots to keep the reader interested. However, unfortunately this pales in comparison to French's Dublin Murder Squad books. It suffers from an unpleasant protagonist and the lack of a detailed investigative perspective. Beautifully written but sadly not the author's best.
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3.5 In this rather lengthy stand alone, French again explores the sense of identity, as well as the question, How well do we really know another person? Three cousins, children of four brothers, who have all spent their summers, vacations from school at the house where their unmarried Uncle Hugh lives. Grown up now, not as close as they once were, they all come together after Toby is attacked in his apartment and left for dead. Although he makes it, he has lingering effects from the attack, one being his memory which has huge holes, blank spaces. 

So who is he now? He no longer feels like himself, far from the capable man he had thought he was. When a  body is found in the old witch tree in his Uncle Hugh's garden, the Garda is notified. When it turns out t be someone they know, all come in suspicion, especially it seems Toby. The one Garda, reminded me so much of Peter Falk, playing Colombo. Dating myself I know. So the story goes,the very slow unraveling of a history of the characters. Intriguing story, well written as all of her novels are, the pace is very slow, and the pages long. One needs patience here, need to be in the mood for a slow burner. There are plenty of surprises, the characters interesting, myself I had a soft spot for Uncle Hugh, and the questions posed within, important ones. 

More a character study than a thriller I believe, though there are a few action scenes. I enjoyed this, but not as much as some of her previous works. Have a soft spot for her Dublin murder squad.

ARC from Netgalley.
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This book was a little different from Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. But I still loved it. I love how French takes time to build characters and puts little hints and foreshadowing in. And there are some parts that might be considered show but I felt was just building up the story. I really enjoyed this.
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