The Witch Elm
Tana French
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Buy *The Witch Elm* by Tana Frenchonline

The Witch Elm
Tana French
528 pages
October 2018
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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"I told him there's treasure hidden in the garden."
Mixing family drama with a murder mystery as well as levity (even in times of crisis), French handles 28-year-old Toby Hennessy's voice with evenhanded grace, exploring how Toby's luck is smoothly and deliciously deceptive. There are an infinite number of places to begin any story, but for Toby, the genesis goes back to that night and "the dark corroded hinge of before and after."

Toby's metaphorical skull has been tucked away in its cranny for years. He's enjoyed a nice life with Melissa, his sweet-faced girlfriend, and the company of his best pals, Declan and Sean. He also has a successful career doing PR and marketing for a fairly prestigious art gallery in the center of Dublin. Then chaos strikes. Toby survives a terrifying home invasion, but now he faces a life filled with landmines. The sudden memory brings back a churning flash of chaos, a loud voice that snaps in Toby's ear as well as a bright light swinging and bouncing: "my whole-body convulses with dry retches."

Though there's no lasting damage from the attack, only some tiny peripheral part of Toby understands, with a sickening drop, that this is in fact his "real life." The Garda think the attack was crime of opportunity--that Toby was picked for a reason--the memory of that night keeps haunting him, catching him like a "singeing crackle of electricity." He recalls the "clogged snuffle of my breath, pain, green curtains" and the gloved hand that reached down and tried to suffocate him. In this "thick miasma of nonspecific fear," everything corrupts everything, where "every shadow could be hiding an attacker."

Enter Uncle Hugo, an affable family historian who, on the advice of Toby's mother, offers his nephew and Melissa a place to stay. In his rambling, dusty gray-brick Georgian Ivy House, Hugo's generosity initiates a chain of events that will change Toby and his cousins Suzanna and Leon in ways that Toby cannot imagine. What starts out as a peaceful weekend soon turns into a tight tapestry of lies built around the witch elm, a giant tree that growes at the bottom of Ivy House's overgrown garden. Vast and luxuriant, in its full summer whirl, the witch elm is like a great malformed creature, "musclebound and nameless, huddled in the darkness waiting for a sign."

What the novel does particularly well is catch what it feels like to be on the verge of deception--the strangeness of another person's confession or the charged moment when memory takes hold. Hugo babbles cheerfully about Ivy House and his memories from childhood while the whereabouts of 18-year-old Dominic Ganley remains a mystery, somehow connected to Suzanna, Leon and Toby's pasts. Toby's memory twists and flicks fitfully, almost filling in a vivid sweep of images that end up leaving behind "tantalizing patches of shadow and darkness." Leon and Susanna's long-buried secret leaves behind an impression that amplifies and even justifies their bad choices as well as the bizarre actions of Detective Rafferty, who tries to pin murder on an ever-paranoid Toby.

In the final chapters, dying Hugo becomes a dark arbiter probing Toby's hidden places to decide his fate. With vicious self-flagellating intensity, Toby recalls a fever-tinted afternoon of cigarettes and booze. He wants Leon to lose his cool and tell him exactly what he thinks. As her chapters move between Dublin and Ivy House, French delivers an astute expose of the cover-ups of a broken family. Is Tony a wronged innocent, a white knight or a cunning investigator? Up until the attack, Toby thought that his luck was built into him, "a keystone that cohered in his bones," a golden thread that had stitched together the secret tapestries of his DNA.

The novel is French's ultimate tour-de-force, part suspense fiction, part police procedural. Her descriptions of gothic Ivy House become a symbol for Toby's looking-glass life (though I can't say I particularly liked or even identified with him). For large sections of the novel, there is little sense of urgency. Still, the settings are gorgeous and the sense of mystery is striking, which builds an arresting background to Toby's life. French portrays him as a sort of Irish everyman who is forced to reluctantly confront his family's long-buried demons.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Michael Leonard, 2019

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