Cover Image: The Witch Elm

The Witch Elm

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Tana French’s new novel is set in the Dublin area but does not involve the Dublin Murder Squad. The book starts out strong with Toby, a likeable, affable guy who has led a live of popularity and ease. He uses his charm to persuade people to think favorably about him. He exudes confidence and likes to poke fun at friends and family who are less poised and successful. All that suddenly changes when burglars attack him in his own apartment and leave him near death. The assault has rendered Toby badly damaged, both mentally and physically.

As he faces recuperation, Toby ends up staying with his uncle who is dealing with cancer. Returning to the family homestead brings back memories to Toby’s disjointed mind. When a skull is discovered on the property, the police are called and a full investigation begins. The plot thickens and there is plenty of tension between: Toby and his cousins, Toby and the police, Toby and his diminished capacities, and Toby ‘s concern over his uncle’s health. The once easy-going PR guy is now mired in questions and concerns. Detectives involved in investigating both cases - the robbery and the skeleton - are smarmy and unctuous in their questioning. They sow doubt and confusion in Toby’s damaged mind.

French has a powerful way of depicting Toby’s fractured memory and physical slip-ups. His anguish is palpable and his obsession over trying to make connections and solve the crime is disturbing. Unlike the Dublin squad, the focus is on the victims and possible perpetrators instead of on the detectives. 

Somewhere midway through the book, the story loses some steam. It falters a bit but not because of poor characterization. French’s depictions of Toby’s friends and his cousins are outstanding and they are colorful additions that are typical examples of the author’s skill..
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A complex mystery entwined with a family drama. May disappoint some fans of the Dublin Murder Squad books.
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I usually like Tana French books.  Although they are somewhat depressing and dark, they are cleverly crafted and  suspenseful.  The Witch Elm starts out with some promise but just gets even darker than usual.

Toby is lucky and gets all the breaks until his home is violated and he is attacked.  After a long time in the hospital, he is still suffering from the effects of the brain damage he suffered in the attack.  He and his girl friend, Melissa, move in to care for his uncle who is dying from brain cancer. This is the home where he and his cousins spent many happy hours as children and where all of the family returns for weekly Sunday dinners.  During one of these dinners a body is discovered in the Wych Elm at the back of the garden.  The investigation that ensues brings out many buried secrets and tests the cousins friendship and Toby's character.  It was just too depressing for me.
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My expectations were high going into this book and in the end, it didn't wow me. The story felt long and meandering and the main character, Toby, never really grabbed my interest. There were elements of the mystery that I enjoyed and the reveal was satisfying, but much of the book felt like a slog to get through.
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I did not like this as much as I hoped I would.  I found it to be slow paced, and tedious to read.  The chapters were too long!  And the ending was disappointing.  Not terrible, but I would not recommend.
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Tana French is one of my favorite authors and she does not disappoint in this stand-alone novel. A reflection on luck and how one event can change an entire life.
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I love Tana French’s Irish Detective series. However this departure doesn’t stand up to her other work.  I’m 2/3 through and had to walk away. It keeps dragging on and on... really. Where’s the plot development? I may or may not finish it. I hope French goes back to the Detective series next.
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I didn't think I was ever going to get through this book. The actual story doesn't start until about a third of the way through. The first part deals with an event somewhat unrelated to the central part of the plot. Once the actual story begins, the book is actually quite good. While gathered at a family home, some children stumble across a skull in the backyard. It is up to Toby and his siblings to figure out who the skull belongs to and how it got there. This is the first book French has written that isn't from the point of view of a police officer. Toby, the main character, is utterly unlikable, which I think was the point. All of the characters are pretty insufferable, actually. The ending of the book is rather bleak, and left me feeling rather hopeless about human nature. It definitely left me with something to think about.

I received an ARC of this title from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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Wow this was so boring. Jesus. The actual plot doesn't get going until page 150, and even then, there are whole chapters of just people sitting around talking. This book should have been about 200 pages shorter to function as a gripping, suspenseful mystery.

It's not even really a mystery. This book is more of a character study about what it means to be "lucky," and what can happen if something that defines you is suddenly stripped away. All of that was interesting, sure, but man the rest was boring.

It definitely has a lot of merit, but if you're a fan of Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series, the things you love about that don't really translate here.
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The pace was much too slow for me. I found myself not caring about any of the twists and turns of the story because it was all bogged down in mundane details.
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I'm a huge fan of Tana French. Her Murder Squad Series is one of the few mystery series I enjoy so I was excited to give this stand alone a try. Overall it was a really great read, and I enjoyed it just as much as her Murder Squad books. 

Our main character is Toby and he's living a charmed life. Great family relationships, great friends, great girlfriend, good job, everything's coming up Toby. That all changes when he interrupts a burglary at his apartment and is nearly killed in the ensuing scuffle. This sets off a chain of events that ends up altering his life in ways he can't begin to imagine. A beloved Uncle with brain cancer, a skeleton in the garden, and a spiraling family dynamic punctuate the meticulously crafted mystery.

Like all Tana French books, this one is loooooong and can take a good long while to get moving. I was 30% of the way through the book before the skeleton shows up which gets the actual mystery moving. It can be discouraging if it's your first French book, but if you stick with it you'll be rewarded. All her books are meticulously crafted and everything comes together in the end, but it can take a while to get there. The characters are expertly crafted and the plot eventually gets moving at a good clip. It was really interesting to see her write from a suspects point of view after reading so much from the detectives POV in her other books. French is certainly not a one trick pony when it comes to characterization, and she does a great job of talking about privilege and luck without it ever feeling tacked on or soap boxy. In the end this is really a story about luck--but for one small twist of fate, everything could have worked out differently and that's where the true horrors of life wait. 

I was really enjoying it until the last 10%. I'm used to kind of suspending disbelief a bit with her books, but the end on this one took it just a little too far too fast. It would have been perfect if she had ended it just a bit sooner. Otherwise it was a really insightful read. I'd recommend it to people who enjoyed her other novels and patient readers who value character explorations over action scenes.
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I have read every one of Tana French's books and loved them (<3 Dublin Murder Squad), so when this title came up on NetGalley, I was ecstatic - especially when I learned that the premise was the discovery of a body in an old wych elm. (I had hoped that the book would be about the woman found in a wych elm in 1943, but alas, this was not so.)

Toby, an upbeat and charming young fella, is a successful marketing manager for a highbrow art dealer. He finds himself unexpectedly embroiled in a scandal, and soon afterward he is attacked in his home by some unknown thugs. He wakes up in the hospital, unsure of exactly what's happened and soon on the long road to recovery from a traumatic brain injury. He's got an ailing uncle who needs some help as well, so he reluctantly agrees to take on the role of caregiver while he himself is still trying to recover -- and it's at a family dinner with the uncle and his cousins that one of the kids discovers a skull in the witch elm.

The skull is reported to police, and from there, Toby is forced to confront the possibility that one of his family members is a murderer - and with his increasingly spotty and unreliable memory, he begins to wonder if it could have been him.

The prose is lovely and interesting, just as it always is, but I found myself really unsatisfied by the ending, perhaps because it didn't wrap things up as neatly as I'd hoped? I think I'd wanted a happy ending, since I liked Toby's character so much, but it doesn't quite work out in the way I wanted or expected. I suppose that's what a truly good book does, though - surprises you. 

Now that I've written all that out, I might have to read this again and re-evaluate my feelings. 

Regardless: stay away from wych elms.
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Thanks to NetGalley for providing a free digital ARC in exchange for an unbiased review.<br />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.<br />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.<br />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.<br />This book explores the vagaries of memory, especially in the aftermath of brain trauma. <a class="jsShowSpoiler spoilerAction">(view spoiler)</a><span class="spoilerContainer" style="display: none">[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? <a class="jsHideSpoiler spoilerAction">(hide spoiler)</a>]</span><br />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. <br />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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