Cover Image: The Witch Elm

The Witch Elm

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Member Reviews

I received a free ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

I like the authors writing style and how she can really paint a picture of what is happening. For the most part, I did enjoy the story. It got a little too long at times, but it all pulled together nicely and made sense.  There were some nice twists that I wasn’t expecting too. 3.5
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Tana French’s loosely-linked series of stand-alone books follow the investigations of the Dublin Murder Squad. They’ve won deserved acclaim for their genre-busting psychological tension and dark humor. Seriously, if you haven’t read them, treat yourself. The publicity touts her new novel, The Witch Elm, as a departure from her previous police procedurals.  But it actually extends the franchise, as well as adds something more. This time, French tells the story of a crime from the victim’s perspective rather than the cop’s. A complex meditation on memory, guilt, and death emerges, with a lot of timely soul-searching into the roots of toxic masculinity.

At the outset of the book, Toby Hennessy is nobody’s victim. With a doting girlfriend, a promising career doing PR for a buzzy art gallery, a supportive family, loyal mates, and endless reserves of natural charm, he’s always been able to talk his way out of any problem. Ireland’s economic upswing may mask lingering class conflicts, but Toby’s always had the right accent, the right school, the right car, the right neighborhood.

But after two burglars break into his flat and beat him to a pulp, Toby wakes up in the hospital looking like “the lowlife in the zombie movie who isn’t going to make it past the first half-hour.” Mentally and physically broken, he retreats to Ivy House, the posh home of his elderly bachelor uncle, Hugo. There, he recuperates under the watchful eye of his sweetheart of a sweetheart, Melissa. They, in turn, care for Hugo, slowly but steadily declining from an inoperable brain tumor.

Although Toby convinces himself that he’s covering it well, it becomes increasingly clear that he’s not the man he used to be, and may never be again. Suffering from slurred speech, a droopy eyelid, a gamey leg, and an alarmingly patchy memory, he’s also got a raging case of PTSD. This makes him uncharacteristically bad-tempered and paranoid. Drugs are no longer an occasional recreational pastime but a constant crutch. It’s an abrupt comedown for someone who’s always sailed through life on his good looks, quick wits, and what Toby describes as “luck”. His less fortunate peers (notably Melissa and his two cousins, a woman and a gay man) easily recognize this as upper-middle-class white-male privilege, even if Toby doesn’t. For the first time, words fail him. The cozy well-being he’s always taken for granted—“a satisfying sense that everything was going exactly as it should”—ends up being just another elusive memory.

The isolated, hermetic setting of Ivy House feels straight out of Agatha Christie. In classic murder-mystery fashion, the reader soon gets confronted with a second, more serious crime: a long-dead body. Are they connected? Family secrets come out that cause Toby to question his own motives and culpability. “Even when most other stuff had gone by the wayside, I had hung onto the idea that at least I was a decent guy.” But is he really one of the good guys after all? Toby may be smart, but he’s not Dublin Murder Squad smart.

When homicide detectives pop in to question him, deploying their own roguish charm, he doesn’t realize the cops are running rings around him. He’s not just in a diminished state, he’s incapable of comprehending the banality of evil and his own complicity. Nevertheless, Toby persists in his personal investigation, because the scariest option is that the attack on him was completely random. Unable to accept that, he repeatedly relives the night of the attack wracking his fractured memory for clues. Better to be a suspect, or hapless amateur sleuth, than a “contemptible useless fucked-up victim.” Despite all his advantages, he’s as vulnerable and fragile as anyone else.

Although the eventual payoff to the framing mystery—who attacked Toby, and why?—is worth waiting for, by that time the book has waded into murkier waters, and the resolution ultimately proves unsatisfying. The charming narrator is not just unreliable but brain-damaged; a frustrating state for Toby, but much more so for the reader. While French portrays his mental impairment and difficult recovery realistically and sympathetically, Toby’s memories and false memories come and go at inconvenient or maybe all-too-convenient times, dragging out an already bloated story clocking in at more than 500 pages.

Ivy House is less atmospheric and seductive than French thinks, and Toby’s forgone fate starts to feel implausible. By the end of this twisty tale, the twists come too fast and thick to make an impact, and end up being simply exhausting. But Toby’s fall from innocence—in every sense of the word—to horror-struck remorse hits home. A lifetime of small acts of thoughtlessness and boys-will-be-boys rationalizations add up to a crime so heinous that all the luck in the world can’t save him.
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Left for dead during an unfortunate accident and a series of events, main character Toby ends up at Ivy House. Ivy House is the home of Toby’s Uncle Hugo, who is dying of a brain tumor.  Essentially, we’re to believe the two are taking care of each other at this estate. Other family members converge, cousins, to see to it that the pair are taken care of. 

Things get a bit tricky when a skull is found on the grounds of the home, within a tree. A very old skull, it turns out....from a missing person 20 years prior. 

I found this novel a bit interesting and yet also it didn’t hold my attention well. The plot was different though!
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Encouraged by the recommendation of my mom--and very little else--I decided to give this thriller a go. And that is, quite literally, what I did, because this book requires you to be willing to give a great deal: your time, your concentration, your investment. But it is worth every minute of missed sleep and every deep sigh of frustration, because, though the detailed story moves slowly, it never grows boring--and delivers a payoff in a way that is both satisfying and upsetting, all in one try. One thing I will note: I opened this book knowing very little of its contents, and that is the way I urge you to approach it. After I finished the book, I researched reviews from Stephen King to small book bloggers, and they all without exception gave away important plot points that are better experienced with no prior knowledge. Leave it at this: if you enjoy slow burn crime fiction thrillers, I would definitely recommend giving it a go yourself.
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It was never going to be as good as The Trespasser, but up until the last section was excellent. I felt the final part moved into melodrama.
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I tried for quite a while to get into this book, but I never could. The first half was so slow-going that after multiple tries I eventually just put it down and never came back to it, which I hate to do. I would like to finish it at some point, but it didn't grab me the way some other French novels have.
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This could be the ultimate "book club book". There is SO much to discuss here including many life altering questions -- would you lie/cheat/kill for your career? in response to unrelenting bullying/harrassment? to save a friend? a family member? This is on the surface a mystery about a skeleton found 10 years after his death, but it's really an examination of life and family and memory.

So....why didn't I like this book? Frankly, it was pretty dull and I didn't really like any of the characters -- I especially disliked the narrator and main character. I found myself skimming long passages of description and self-examination. I figured out the mystery pretty early (OR DID I?) and then the last 20% of the book changed that (or did it?) -- This is the perfect example of an "unreliable narrator" -- I never knew the truth about anything since virtually every character tells a different story. I was just frustrated and bored. I've read Tana French books in the past and found them intriguing & full of suspense, just not this one.
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In her first standalone novel, Tana French delves into the mysteries of a family and their secrets. In The Witch Elm, 28-year-old Toby Hennessy is leading a life of ease and bliss. With a cushy job at an art gallery and a too-perfect girlfriend, his life is an enviable one. Everything goes sideways, though, when Toby stumbles upon fraud at the art gallery and then later that night is brutally assaulted by home invaders. While convalescing, he is asked by a cousin to stay with his dying Uncle Hugo at their family’s house. During a family get-together, a skull is found buried within the two-centuries-old witch elm beloved by the Hennessy family.

The plotting is slow and padded, and the reader will crave a leaner narrative, but once French hits her stride mid-novel, the mystery and intrigue are quickly ramped up and we never look back. When the police show up to investigate, the Hennessy family is snared into the mysterious death and the plot finally starts to race ahead to the delight of the reader. Hints are dropped that Toby’s memory is less than reliable. He seems to remember his relationships and his past in a wholly different way than his friends and family members do. Of course, the differing accounts become problematic for him when the identity of the skull becomes potentially linked to Toby and his cousins while teenagers a decade ago.

It is exciting to see French continue to make her way to the top of the crime genre. Fans of her previous Dublin Murder Squad books will find themselves happily tangled up in her new novel, and ultimately delighted by the deep psychological dive she leads them on—something she does so very well.
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I enjoyed this! I always know I'll enjoy a Tana French book because her writing is gorgeous, but I was really intrigued by the story as well!
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A slow build with complex character development, The Witch Elm is a select book for lovers of Wiley Cash and Fiona Barton.
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Thank you very much for allowing me the opportunity to read this book!  I appreciate the kindness. <3
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This psychological thriller is a real page-turner. I stayed up late several nights not only reading but also thinking about the bombshells that had just been dropped!

Toby is a hip young professional working in Dublin in public relations at an art gallery. He's got a great career, great girl friend, great friends and family and considers himself a lucky guy until one night intruders break into his apartment and beat him nearly to death. He struggles to recover especially from the head injury that leaves him anxious and unable to remember large parts of his life. Seeking peace he goes to the old family homestead to stay with his uncle who has his own health struggles and needs assistance. Together they settle into a routine that brings each of them contentment until during a weekly Sunday family meal with all the cousins and aunts and uncles a disturbing "treasure" is found. A skull is in the garden. Toby and his entire family are swept up in a murder investigation and Toby doesn't know whether he can trust anyone, not even himself.

The characters in this novel are very well developed with multiple layers. I found myself not knowing whether I was rooting for or against them and I often hated them vehemently which speaks to the excellence of the writing if Tana French can evoke that kind of feeling from her readers. This is one that stays interesting all the way through and no way will you guess "whodunnit" as the author explores masterfully the difference between who committed the crime versus who is responsible for it and there's definitely plenty of blame to go around!
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This stand-alone book by Tana French, author of the highly-regarded Dublin series, starts out innocuous enough with Toby enjoying a night out with the lads A self-admitted lucky guy, Toby's life is about to do a 180.  He returns home from the pub and is awakened during the night by intruders who rob and assault him. They leave him seriously injured, including a severe blow to the head. As part of his recovery process, Toby and his girlfriend move into the family homestead owned and occupied by his Uncle Hugo, who has terminal cancer. Life falls into a rhythm of quiet but satisfying mutual support for all three of them until an unfortunate discovery upends everything. From this point on, the plot is revealed very slowly, page-by-page.. Character development is key to the plot. Nothing comes together quickly. Nothing foreshadows the outcome. Highly recommended!
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I know people love Tana French and I think she is a very talented writer, but she's just not my cup of tea. There was something so confusing about the beginning of this book for me. I just couldn't understand what in the world was going on.
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Good read with lots of twists and turns in the plot.  However, I could not warm to the characters and found them somewhat unlikeable.  The mystery was a bit rambling and went off in several different directions a few times.  Overall, not as good as this author's previous books that I have read.  Still most will likely enjoy this book.
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I'm a fan of Tana French and have generally enjoyed all the books of hers I've read so far. I did like The Witch Elm but not as much as I've liked her other work, unfortunately. I think the main sticking point for me was how unlikable the main character was. I have mixed feelings, because I think French knew exactly what she was doing and intentionally created a character so deep in his own privilege that he fell apart the moment he faced any actual adversity. I think she actually did this very skillfully, and her exploration of privilege was interesting and well handled. That said, I just found Toby so frustrating as a narrator, and was so annoyed by all his decisions, that it made the book somewhat less enjoyable for me. I also don't think the pacing was quite as well done as in some of her other work.

One other thing I could have done without were some of the slurs included. There weren't a lot, and I realize this was part of Toby's characterization, but they still bothered me and seemed unnecessary to include. 

Overall, it's not a bad book, and others might not be as bothered as I was by various aspects. I think it's worth a read if you're a fan of Tana French, even if it's not her best.
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As a Tana French groupie, I was thrilled to see she was writing a standalone outside of the Dublin Murder Squad (as much as I adore those). The Witch Elm had French's classic enigmatic and ethereal way of writing, plus a twisted murder mystery as she is wont to do. I can't say much about the actual plot, as the description does it justice already, but this is just another great masterpiece from Tana French, with the bonus of it being a standalone with a new cast of characters. Highly recommended.
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Another winner from Tana French. The problem with her books is I can’t get any sleep as I stay up all night reading!
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I like her other books, the Dublin murder squad very much. However, I couldn't get in to this book. I didn't like the main character very much.  The beginning was very slow going too .
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I really love Tana French, but this one was not my favorite. It took me awhile to get into and moved slower than I would have liked. I'm sad, but I know that I'll be looking out for her future books anyway. I'll support Tana no matter what because she's one of my favorite authors.
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