The Witch Elm

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 01 Apr 2019

Member Reviews

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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Toby doesn't die when he's beaten brutally by a pair of thieves, but his charmed life does end. His cracked ribs heal, but his TBI wrecks havoc on his memory, speech, and personality. Ironically, Toby finds himself acting as caretaker to his uncle Hugo as he succumbs to brain cancer. Bolstered by his godsend of a girlfriend, Toby returns to Ivy House, where he spent so many idyllic summers with his cousins. Just as he's starting to heal, his nephew finds a skull in the backyard and everything implodes. Toby is an utterly terrible human and the plot moves glacially, but the slow revelation of everyone's dark sides is riveting.
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I’m not sure how I feel about this book and that’s okay. One of the reasons why I read Tana French is her ability to delve into the human psyche and come out with truths that are realistically terrifying. This book was a fantastic example of this. The Witch Elm is not a crime story (though there are plenty crimes going on), but a trippy story that makes you question the nature of memory, family, and morality. Me and my logical brain really struggled through the first half of this book. I only started enjoying it when I let go of my need to make sense of the narrative and instead immersed myself in the blurry world of a very unreliable narrator.
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About a third of the way through The Witch Elm, by Tana French, I started to wonder when the book would get good. I was interested, but not totally hooked. Now that I’ve finished the book, I will never doubt French again. The first third of the novel sets the stage for the beautifully written parallels and ethical dilemmas of the second two-thirds of the book by presenting a thorough psychological portrait of protagonist Toby Hennessy. In the opening chapters of The Witch Elm, Toby receives an awful lesson in how privileged his life as a charming, middle class, white heterosexual man has been. Over and over, privilege and its benefits are thrown into sharp relief as Toby’s life is turned upside down and inside out.

There are two worst nights of Toby’s life. Both of them start out the same way, with Toby having a good time with friends and drinks. Both of them end with a crime that changes his life. The crime that occurs at the beginning of The Witch Elm sees Toby badly beaten in his Dublin apartment by a pair of thieves. He suffers from slurred speech and can’t always find the right words. He can’t multitask any more. He’s got weakness on his left side. Perhaps worst of all, his self-confidence (the epitome of his sense of self) is completely destroyed. When Toby relocates to the suburbs to help care for his terminally ill uncle and to recuperate himself, his nephew finds evidence of the other crime: a human skull in the 200-year-old wych elm in the garden of the Hennessey family’s Ivy House.

The skull turns out to be part of the remains of a teenaged boy who everyone thought had committed suicide ten years ago. The investigation into the boy, Dominic’s, murder, however, kicks up a bunch of sinister gaps in Toby’s memory. Toby remembers Dominic as kind of a mate and basically a “good guy.” Toby can’t remember much about why someone would want to kill Dominic, but his cousins remember Dominic as a sadistic, relentless bully. The more Toby learns, the more he starts to wonder if his habit of forgetting his own bad behavior might be concealing something horrible. His inability to remember what may have happened ten years ago torments him, so much so that he starts to wonder if he is the killer. And yet, things don’t quite add up—at least until the end of the book when everything wraps up in a masterful and deeply satisfying conclusion.

The mystery at the heart of The Witch Elms is delightfully plotted out. I loved the way it all played out because of the ethical complications. But the best part of The Witch Elm, I think, is the way that it exposes how we as a society bestow the privilege of being believed on certain people and withhold it from others. For some reason, white, middle class, teenaged boys (especially upper class white boys) who have a decent reputation are believed, while teenaged girls of whatever ethnicity or reputation are not believed. If girls (or women or LGBT+ people or people of color) accuse the privileged, they are told that “boys will be boys” or that they’re making things up. Toby is shown this over and over, slowly realizing how damaging it is to a person’s self-worth to be disbelieved on top of being bullied. There were a few points when I wanted to reach into the book and shake Toby until his teeth rattled because he just does not get it, not until he finally sees the full picture. The passages when he finally does it get it are simultaneously satisfying and disheartening because they contain so much truth.

There is plenty of fodder for discussion for book groups in The Witch Elm. In addition to fueling conversation about privilege and how it protects predators, readers will be left with questions about how malleable our memory is, whether or not its justifiable to take justice into one’s hands when official channels are not available, and how much people will sacrifice for their loved ones. The thematic parallels that repeatedly echo questions about privilege, memory, and the rest never bog down the plot (which gets very tense more than a few times), and give this book a lot of substance in addition to its cracking mystery.
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The author is always in control of her characters, her plot and her novel, as each revelation teases and provokes more questions for the reader and the protagonist, Toby, who is trying to find out as much about himself as about the past. The family dynamics that are so key to the novel and to the mystery are complex and carefully thought out, with the normality of banal interactions and reactions counter-balancing the horror of the world in which Toby is living. Prepare to settle in for a stretch, while this book takes you on a determined quest for the truth.
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. I was so excited to receive an ARC for Tana French's new book because I really enjoy her Dublin Murder Squad Series. Unfortunately, this was not as exciting as her other books and I just could not get into this story. I did not care about any of the characters (with the exception of Hugo), and it was very slow paced. I felt like I was forcing myself to finish it.  I will say that it started picking up around the final quarter of the book, which is why I ended up giving it three stars.

This mystery might work better for someone who is a fast reader, but since it takes me awhile to finish a book, it seemed to drag on more.
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Let me start off by saying that I am a HUGE Tana French fan. I absolutely adore her Dublin Murder Squad series, so I very much jumped at the chance to read  The Witch Elm. 

Even though it is a standalone we still get French's engaging prose and uncanny ability to draw the reader into the story, no matter how dark.  

Though it was, in my opinion, a bit slow to start, if you stick with it you will be rewarded with a fantastic thriller.
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CW: bullying, attempted sexual assault, homophobia, burglary, graphic beating, and cancer


I’m really conflicted about this book. Really, really conflicted. Because, on one hand, it wasn’t at all what I expected and was something new from French, who is an author I love from her Dublin Murder Squad series, yet it also wasn’t as exciting as I wanted it to be. It waffled between three and four stars for me, but I landed on four.

At first, I thought this was a retelling of Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm, a famous unsolved mystery from England. But it’s just inspired by it. Which works because there are so many weird theories and thoughts about that case, so she was able to take the idea of a body found in a tree without dealing with anything else.

But, what is this book really about?

It’s about Toby, a man who has the whole world going for him… until a brutal home invasion leaves him scarred, both physically and mentally. His uncle, Hugo, is dying of cancer and, for a break, he moves in with him as a caretaker. One day, his cousin Susanna’s kids are playing and finds a skull in the witch elm in the lawn.

From there, the secrets pour out.

It’s a slow read. Like, it took nearly 40% of the book to get to actually finding the skull — which is why I think the synopsis gives too much away, but also the title immediately calls the unsolved mystery to mind so it’s hard to get away from spoilers. Then the hunt took forever. The reveal came at 80%. Then there was still 20% to build-up.

That’s a huge con for me, honestly, yet it oddly worked at the same time?

It’s a family drama. Okay? It’s not a crime procedural like she’s done in all her other books. It focuses on the family Toby has. His dying uncle Hugo, his own memory loss, his stay-at-home-mom cousin Susanna, and his gay, wandering cousin Leon. And everyone’s important to the book in some way. The story revolves around this family drama and the unsaid things and secrets kept.

I can’t say too much more than that, honestly. It’s one of those weird books where everything happens but nothing happens. If you want something thrilling, this isn’t the book for you. If you want something that meanders the path to get to the conclusion, you’ll like it.
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Sometimes taking violent action gives you power and sometimes taking violent action haunts you forever.  It depends on what you have personally experienced in your life.  Think about it...what would cause you to physically harm another person and not be haunted.
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This standalone title by Tana French is her most chilling and disturbing novel yet. Yes, it's a whodunit, but it's also a psychological treatise that asks the reader to think about how well one really knows anyone - even those we deem closest. And how well do we know ourselves? What, in certain circumstances, are we capable of?
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I read this in one day.  It is mot a comfortable read, but the main character is so engaging I dreaded that something bad would happen to you. 

The book had the unexpected hook I expect from Tana French. I never see what is coming.
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I've been told more times than I can count that I "should read Tana French" so I decided to jump in to this puzzling, clever story head first. French has produced a story that makes you pay attention and think about who, what, where, and when. At first, I found the pace slow and the story rather uninteresting, but once the setting moves to the big, spooky house, things pick up and get really twisted. I was kept guessing throughout and was surprised at the ending - something that doesn't happen all that much anymore. Recommended for readers who like complicated mysteries.
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Tana French's new standalone novel "The Witch Elm" differs in tone and pacing from her wildly popular Dublin Murder Squad series, but will certainly still appeal to readers that have already been hooked by her detailed plots and engaging writing.
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I loved Tana French's other books, but this one was not as satisfying to me. I knew the body would be found in the tree, but it seemed to take a really long time before that happened. Then the mystery was wrapped up, but the book kept going.
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Toby's humdrum life is about to explode. It starts with a problem at work, and escalates after a break in at his house that leaves him with a serious injury. This is followed by a murder mystery that he becomes involved in and culminates in the exposition of family secrets. Curveballs come from everywhere before the plot twists, and there are many, finally come to a conclusion.
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The Mistress of Suspense does it again - great characters, great plot and a page turner from start to finish
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