Cover Image: The Witch Elm

The Witch Elm

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Member Reviews

It pains me to give this book such a low rating, because I love Tana French and the Dublin Murder Squad mysteries so very much. However, it was difficult for me to get through this standalone. The plot was painfully slow-moving. I couldn't figure out where it was going for the longest time. The characters were extremely unlikable. This was a very unpleasant surprise for me because I think French is so gifted at creating three dimensional characters who, even if they are unlikable, are at least interesting and dynamic. The overall tone was so unceasingly gloomy that I felt as though I was being sucked into a dark and depressing state of mind, each and every time I picked up the book! It was definitely a struggle to get through, and I don't think I've ever said that about a Tana French novel before.

Thank you to Netgalley for the opportunity to read an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.
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3.5 stars. First off, this was not my favorite Tana French book. It was, of course, well written and the characters well developed. Toby, the main character, went from basically being a rather smug, well off, everything going great in his job, love life, etc., to being a wreck, both emotionally and physically. The story itself was good but much of it was told through long-winded conversations between characters and Toby’s endless self analysis and inner dialogues. This all made for a slow read of an interesting enough murder mystery and a clueless young man’s deterioration, but it was just too long and drawn out.
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I have LOVED Tana French’s series of books featuring various characters from the Dublin Murder Squad, so when Penguin Group Viking and NetGalley provided me with the opportunity to read The Witch Elm  in return for my honest review, I was ecstatic. It is a standalone novel, unrelated to the Dublin Murder Squad, so while I would have enjoyed seeing more of Antoinette Conway, Stephen Moran, and others, I REALLY enjoyed getting to know a whole new cast of characters.

The central character is Toby Hennessey, a millennial who has a great job doing PR for an art gallery, an amazing girlfriend named Melissa, and good friends including Sean and Declan. He also has a close family including his Uncle Hugo and cousins Susanna and Leon, all of whom figure prominently in the story. And one of the reasons I LOVE Tana French's books is that I truly feel I KNOW these people (yes, for me they are people, not characters), and I care about them.

Toby is a happy-go-lucky guy leading a seemingly charmed life in Dublin, and he seems fairly self-aware as he notes   “Me, cheerful oblivious Labrador of a guy, lolloping happily along with the flow…” His insight into his own good fortune is reflected in his view of his longtime friend Declan: “not that I was some charismatic leader type, but I was always effortlessly part of the cool crowd, invited to everything, secure enough in my footing that Dec had been accepted into the fold in spite of his accent and his glasses and his atrocious rugby skills and the chip on his shoulder, simply because he was my friend.”

As the story begins, Toby seems to have (as usual, according to family and friends) charmed his way out of what could have been an extremely bad situation at work. To celebrate, he and Sean and Dec  go out for (way too many) drinks, then Toby heads for home. French’s descriptions of place are as effective as those of character, shown when Toby returns to his apartment building in Dublin, described as  “the outside was sourly utilitarian and the corridors had the hallucinatory, liminal vibe of an airport hotel.” That night, Toby’s place is burglarized by two men who rob him,  beat him savagely, and leave him for dead.

Following a lengthy hospital stay, Toby is struggling to recover both physically and mentally when his cousins Leon and Susanna encourage him to move in with their Uncle Hugo, who has just been diagnosed with a terminal illness and is determined to live out his days at the family’s ancestral home. As Toby and Melissa settle in with Hugo, police detectives begin an investigation into a crime that occurred on the property ten or so years ago, back around the time Toby, Leon, and Susanna were all spending their entire summers at the house with Uncle Hugo.  

Toby is having enough trouble just learning to adjust to his new reality of life following a traumatic brain injury, and he is aware he isn’t doing that well as he tries to present himself as a cooperative person to the detectives who are coming around the house – a LOT: “I was having trouble struggling up out of the Xanax, viscous fog dragging at my mind and my limbs, and the cops prowling the garden like a pack of feral dogs in the corner of my eye were more than I could handle.”

Toby’s memory problems compound his confusion about events from ten years earlier, and his drug use both then and now adds to the lack of clarity he has about either his past or his new reality. He becomes well aware that not only is he significantly changed as a result of his injury, he really doesn’t seem to have a solid grip on the reality of his past OR the fundamental question of what kind of person he has become.

The language is frequently colloquial, and I was grateful for my online dictionary more than once (gurning, numinous, and sgraffitoed, for example). Suspenseful, full of interesting people and enough plot twists and surprises to keep my husband asking “What’s wrong?” as I repeatedly voiced exclamations such as “Oh, no!” while I was reading. I couldn’t wait to find out what happened, and yet I didn’t want it to end. It is one of my favorite books of the year, for sure. Five stars.
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Can the marvelous Tana French write a compelling book even if it does not involve the Dublin murder squad? The answer, at least for this reader, is no, not really. There is nothing exactly wrong with the story of Toby, who, in the aftermath of a devastating assault, moves into the evocative Ivy House where he summered as a child to take care of his dying uncle, and in the hands of another writer this would have been a perfectly respectable little three-star read that I didn't have vague feelings of disappointment about after finishing. But I know how good French can be and I know how devastated I've been in the past after reading her books, and this just didn't get there for me. Although her writing is just as gorgeous and heady as ever, the story limps and drags through the Ivy House, and once the secret in the elm tree is discovered, Toby's meandering attempts to glean clues about it have got absolutely nothing on the sharp-edged skill of her past detectives. When the detectives in this novel eventually show up, they just made me despondent that I wasn't reading the book from their perspective instead of Toby's, who is exactly the type of unreliable narrator I can't stand. I did enjoy the dramatic stuff right before the ending and in no world would I ever, ever give up on reading French because she's one of the best ever, but this is definitely not  definitely not her usual caliber of effortlessly brilliant and heart-breaking.
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Toby Hennessy was by all accounts a lucky young man. The Dublin resident had always been a “golden boy”. He was affable and able to talk himself out of any trouble. His upper middle class family supported him fully - even after he left university. His girlfriend, Melissa, adored him and they were making plans to move in together and get engaged.

So it came as a total shock when Toby returned from a night out with friends to be attacked in his condo and left near death by his attackers. He spent several weeks in the hospital slowly recovering. Soon after his departure from the hospital, his family learned that his bachelor uncle, Hugo, was dying from brain cancer. Hugo lived alone in Ivy House, the large ancestral home that had been in the Hennessy family since the 1920s. So Toby and Melissa moved into Ivy House to assist Hugo in his last months. 

Then one day, two of the younger family members found a skull in a hole of a large tree known as the Witch Elm. The Guarda were called and the rest of the body was exhumed . The body belonged to Dominic, a popular boy who had been a school friend of Toby and who had tormented both of Toby’s cousins, Susanna and Leon. Dominic had spent time at the home before his disappeared in an apparent suicide 10 years before.

The detectives ascertained that Dominic’s death had been murder and the murderer was probably connected to Ivy House. During the summers before the three cousins went to university, they were usually left in Uncle Hugo’s care at Ivy House while their parents traveled abroad.  Toby’s memory was still impaired but he set out to discover how Dominic had been killed and who did it. 

This is a stand alone book by the author even though one of the Dublin Murder Squad members, Detective Rafferty, is one of the two detectives investigating the murder. 

The book investigates the psychology of goodness and also questions how different people can view a situation and come to different conclusions.  I enjoyed it but not as much as the Dublin Murder Squad books.
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Tana French never disappoints!  A little slow but I still wasn't  help to put it down. Is that plot a little far-fetched? Probably but who cares.
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Another murder mystery set in Ireland, but a step away from the Dublin Murder Squad series, which some of Ms. French's readers may find disappointing.  However, I really enjoyed this standalone story.  As always the story line was well plotted, the characters well developed and the dialog realistic.  #TheWitchElm #NetGalley
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I have been a devoted reader of Tana French since the very beginning, so I was excited to see this ARC listed. Unfortunately, it fell a little flat for me. I found it long and meandering and by halfway through, I was skimming to get to the end and to find out who the murderer was. It didn't help that I found most of the characters pretty unlikeable. Hopefully, the next book is one that grabs me more.
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Toby has had a tough year. First his flat is burglarized and he is beaten to near death. As he recovers, he finds out his favorite uncle only has months to live. Toby moves in with his uncle to help care for him during his final months. During that time secrets are uncovered that could either mend the family or tear them further apart. (potential spoiler alert:  I only gave this 3 stars as I found the ending unsatisfying with regard to the connection of the burglary).
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It took me a long time to figure out how I felt about The Witch Elm. In some ways I liked it, and think it's a good unique mystery in a genre that's stuffed with dry thrillers. Other things that French was trying to do with this book did not work for me.

My biggest problem with it is that the entire thing is written as if the main character is telling you a long story about events that have already happened. This is a problem because the main character either wasn't there for or doesn't remember most of the book's major events due to his injuries. There are a lot of long conversations while other characters tell him important information and these conversations got tedious after a while.

I am a huge fan of French and will read anything that she writes. I didn't think this was a bad book, but it just didn't rank up with my other favorites of hers.
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This book is quite a bit different from Tana French's previous novels.  Instead of following the police, we follow the civilians involved.  But!  We mainly follow a civilian who has suffered a traumatic brain injury, so there are gaps in the history, similar to the uncertainty the detectives might be running into.  The detectives themselves are really minor characters, mostly annoying gadflies that keep popping up from time to time.  The main character is sort of playing detective, but due to the brain injury, it's quite different from other bystander-turned-investigator stories.
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Some books are hard to get into.  Some books have elements that are unbelievable.  Some books can’t be put down.  Tana French’s The Witch Elm embodies all of these characteristics, notable throughout by its excellent writing.  The set up for the story takes up about the first quarter of the novel.  There were times when I was tempted to put it down permanently, but I know Ms. French’s writing and was certain that there was something of substance in store.  Once set up, the story, narrated by Toby, flies by. We meet all of the relevant characters and slowly begin to unravel their layers of complexity.  Narrator Toby is the most complex of all the book’s characters despite his early portrayal as what we might call a “good ol’ boy” for whom life has been nothing but good luck.  A seemingly senseless crime leaves Toby battered and suffering from some physical issues and spotty memory, and he and girlfriend Melissa, move into The Ivy House, a family home to care for Uncle Hugo, who is dying of recently diagnosed brain cancer.  Toby and his two cousins spent many summers together at Ivy House and it is only the discovery of a skull in the garden’s wych elm tree that the past returns to haunt all of the main characters.  Melissa is perhaps the most enigmatic character, part saint and part Pollyanna but then realistic.  Past and present crimes emerge and merge to an unexpected but not quite believable end.  Should the reader believe the confessions?  Is the final crime at all credible?  What is luck and what is a life well lived?  Ms. French raises important questions but falls just a tad short in how she addresses them.
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This standalone novel by Tana French has all of the things people love about the Dublin Murder Squad books - well developed characters, exquisite plotting, and deep explorations of human nature.

Toby leads a charmed life: idyllic childhood, good family, loving girlfriend, good prospects. But everything changes one night when he’s attacked and viscously beaten in his own apartment. As he struggles to recover from his injuries, Toby goes back to the family manse to help care for his dying uncle, Hugo. He makes progress and is beginning to rekindle the closeness he once shared with his cousins when a human skull is found on his uncle’s property. Gradually, Toby is questioning his family, his relationships, his memories, even his own sense of self..

Tana French is a wonderfully patient writer, willing to give her characters room to grow, develop, and evolve until they begin to inhabit the reader’s mind.
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I was super excited when I received an advance copy of Tana French's new novel. I didn't even read the blurb before requesting it. It's Tana French - enough said. I began the story and found it a little slow. I thought - It's Tana French it will pick up. I know I will be in the minority, and I know that many people will disagree with me, but I never really got into the story. It never really picked up, and the marathon dialogues and monologues were tough to get through. Will this stop me from believing that Tana French is practically perfect in every way - not a bit. I will without hesitation request/buy/barter for her next book. This one just didn't hit me the right way.
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French takes a break from her Dublin Murder Squad series for this standalone about a man struggling to come to terms with his future while at the same time looking for answers about his family’s past. Toby was just an average guy hen he made the mistake of interrupting a couple of burglars at work, who then beat him viciously and left him for dead, As Toby struggles to recover, he has to face the fact that the beating may have changed him forever. He decides to retreat to his family’s ancestral home where he can lick his wounds while caring for his dying uncle at the same time. When a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree, the police get involved and Toby finds himself, already on shaky ground, dealing with a truth he may not be able to live with. French is an incredible writer, a woman who uses words like a paintbrush and who can set her readers so firmly inside the worlds she creates that they will forget their own (real) surroundings
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