Book Review: The Witch Elm by Tana French

“Never predictable, never cosy, her books are—in all but name—exercises in quiet, subtle, haunting horror.”

At first, it might seem a little incongruous reviewing a novel by Tana French on a site dedicated to horror. After all, her work is marketed and sold as crime or thriller books. But a closer look—as anyone who’s read her will know—shows she is more than comfortable incorporating horror into her writing. Her first novel, In the Woods, utilises a powerful pagan/primal/folk horror sensibility to underscore its psychological detective story. The follow-up, The Likeness, takes a bizarre scenario and threads it into a narrative that could be easily be a haunted house story except for the fact there are no ghosts (except, perhaps, those of the mind). And in Broken Harbour, there are literary found-footage moments to rival even those terrifying scenes in, say, Adam Nevill’s Last Days. More than this, all her work is deeply internal, giving in-depth examinations of broken or troubled or damaged people moving through scenarios that are—at least initially—mysterious, treacherous, infinitely unstable. There is a lingering sense it would only take one or two steps for her novels to make the leap fully into horror, embracing the darkness instead of dancing with it at a slight remove. And in The Witch Elm (to be published in the UK as The Wych Elm), it feels as though that sensibility is one step closer.

Marking a departure from her previous six novels, all of which are narrated by a member of the fictional Dublin Murder Squad, The Witch Elm is told from the other side of the divide. Toby is a young man who considers himself lucky in life. Not the ‘win the lottery or miraculously avoid a plane crash at the last minute’ lucky, but the quiet kind. He’s managed to get to where he is when we meet him without the major scrapes many others encounter. No trauma from bullying or abuse, both parents still alive and well, no addictions, and not even any hard breakups or acrimonious relationships. As we read, it soon becomes apparent—to us, if not necessarily to Toby—that much of this is down to a certain kind of confident charm. In fact, it’s a confidence that borders on the cocky, though the charm he clearly possesses helps to mitigate this. There is the sense that Toby is—at least to a certain extent—narcissistic, deeply self-centred. We also quickly realise we’re in the hands of the quintessential unreliable narrator. Toby tells us only what he wants us to hear, a device that comes into play later in the book in his interactions with other characters. And he always puts a favourable spin on his own behaviour. For example, in the opening pages, we discover that Toby has been involved in some kind of low-grade fraud at the gallery he works in. Nothing terribly exciting, merely the passing off of certain works of art as being by a fictional working-class artist and not, as is the case, one of his co-workers. In a way, it is the narrow escape from serious consequence of this that leads to Toby being out celebrating with two friends—Dec and Sean—on the same night he is subsequently burgled and left severely beaten. If not for his inebriation, he might well have spent the night at Melissa’s (his girlfriend) place instead. Waking from a short coma, Toby’s trial from this assault begins in earnest—fractured and absent memories, a disintegrating personality, an irrational fear and anxiety about being touched. And, of course, the pain, physical and emotional. Soft yet irritating and insistent badgering from some of his family—his mother and cousin Susanna mostly—eventually cause Toby to move in with his uncle Hugo in his late parents’ big home, Ivy House. The fact his uncle is dying of an inoperable brain tumour might also have something to do with this decision. And it is here he hopes his recovery will be a speedy, hassle-free one even as he struggles to come to terms with a possibly irrevocably changed existence.

Though the synopsis on the back of the book points to the crime against Toby, and later the finding of a human skull in an elm tree at Ivy House as being the main thrust of the plot, the book is at least as much concerned with the interactions between Toby and his friends and family. We are presented with a rich and involving narrative that twists and turns, meandering at times but always with intent and purpose. These two incidents the book hinges on seem almost to be of secondary interest; driving the plot forward, yes, but also allowing family secrets and history to be unearthed, examined in detail, and illuminating the various characters. Even the police detectives—the investigation kicking up a notch when the rest of the skull’s skeleton is found in the tree—appear only sporadically to further twist events. Scenes from the past—consigned to the lockbox of barely remembered memory—take on new and unexpected shapes to Toby. In some instances, his now-fragmented mind cannot even recall the details and he uses his recent tragedy to mask—sometimes genuinely, sometimes not—his recollection or involvement. Because the body turns out to be one of Toby’s school friends, one thought to have committed suicide years ago though he was never found. It is this revelation—and the secrets and memories it slowly unveils—that threatens to shatter Toby’s once-firm world and he retreats further into a mind swirling with paranoia and suspicion.

The horror here is of a psyche in freefall, in fractured turmoil. Toby is, in essence, suffering an ongoing, leisurely breakdown, the foundations of his life—once so certain and solid—now crumbing and utterly unreliable. And each new stress further contributes; shifting loyalties, alternate perspectives, suspicions and perceived betrayals. All of it combines to further drag Toby down into a place of wretchedness. His own changing personality, one that is more prickly, bitter, and oftentimes paranoid, affects those around him. The investigations—both official and personal—also highlight that Toby’s impressions of his youth might not be the same as Susanna and Leon (his other cousin) experienced. All of a similar age, their lives were ones of bullying, social exclusion, and unwanted attention where Toby’s was one of popularity and constant fun. He is genuinely shocked to discover he was unaware of their differing perspectives.

There are a number of tonal touchstones with horror—the central image of a skeleton inside a tree of course, Toby’s mind conjuring frightening visions on occasion, leaving him to wonder if he is losing his sanity. And pervading the book is a sense of darkness, of dread, hints of dark shadows in the corners, at the edges of life. Surely this is a quintessential horror theme? That the lives we live and the world we inhabit are not nearly as stable, sane, or civilised as we’d like to think. That it wouldn’t take much to fracture our belief in this solidity, this illusion of order and meaning. Much horror could be said to involve the savage intrusion of chaos into normality, and Tana French peppers her work with this sensibility. Even though her books involve crime in one way or another, rarely are they resolved without great sacrifice and change wrought on the characters. The Witch Elm takes this further than French has previously, putting Toby—and, to a lesser extent his extended family—through the ringer. And then putting them back through just to be sure.

Horror is a multi-faceted beast, constantly evolving and changing with the times. And if, as some would assert, it is more a feeling than a strict genre, The Witch Elm—and French’s other works—deserves to stand with some of the best writing the genre has to offer. It is also a book that will have you questioning yourself and your morals, your principles. It doesn’t always offer easy answers to the events, but asks—as much of the best writing does—the reader to meet it part-way, to reach beyond what they are being told. Unlike most other crime novels, the reader is never sure just how one of her books will turn out. One thing is guaranteed, though; you will experience great writing, some fantastic character work, and a constant feeling of looming dread. Never predictable, never cosy, her books are—in all but name—exercises in quiet, subtle, haunting horror.


Publisher: Viking/Penguin Random House
Hardcover: 528 (pps)
Release Date: 9 October 2018 (US), 21 February 2019 (UK)

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