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Tana French’s newest, THE WITCH ELM, is an engrossing story about family, love, and loss, though it’s a book entirely unsuitable for the Hallmark channel. Some books haunt long after you shut the cover, walk away, vacuum, fold laundry and wash the dishes. Those are the stories that cling like a light veil, obscuring your vision of the mundane because they’ve reached inside you and tweaked something in your core.

This is one of those books.

Layered, complex, and somewhat bleak, the novel centers on TobyHennessy, who in the very beginning of the book speaks about his luck. As a young man, he has had a fairly smooth path in life—until the night he’s attacked and nearly killed.

Though Toby survives, that easy life of his is gone, replaced by one in which he now struggles—simply in order to function. Yanked from a previously charmed existence, he finds himself inhabiting the world of those in society who are routinely targeted and oppressed. Toby is acutely aware of his loss.

Loss is strung throughout the entire story like a strand of lights that you wind in your front bushes for Yule. The story follows Toby through convalescence in a house he and his cousins spent summers in as they grew up. He takes care of his elderly uncle who is in the process of dying, and the sudden discovery of a skull in the garden starts an investigation that stresses his recovery.

While Toby is acutely aware of his new life, he is acutely unaware of how his privilege has long cushioned him. Throughout the story, French vividly illustrates the obliviousness of the wealthy to the privilege they enjoy, how they move through the world oblivious to the atrocities occurring all around them—but from which they are shielded from by dint of their wealth, gender, or race.

The author uses her consummate skill as a writer to trick the reader—there’s the standard rise of tension, climax, reduction of tension and then—THEN when you think, “Yep, okay, clear plot, excellent characters, nice resolution, I think we’re done here…,” THEN French ambushes you with a finale that adds to the tragedy in a stunning crescendo. It’s the kind of ending that pulls the reader along and whips them around like a kid on the end of a whip-the-tail game.

The resolution of that is so very bleak and so very depressing because it’s so realistic. In the last few lines in the book, Toby reflects again on the concept of “luck.”

Of course, what readers see is not luck but privilege—a vantage to which Toby has been blind throughout the story. All the while, his friends and relatives have tried to draw his attention to the fact that his family name, his race and gender have been the reason he’s managed to skate through so many problems—the reason he survived without damage when others experienced trauma.

Bottom line: definitely worth your time, but definitely not a heartwarming or cozy tale.

See our Reading Guide for The Witch Elm.

 


Cara Kless
Cara spent 10 years as a Library Reader’s Advisor in between performing with a belly dance troupe and teaching dance classes. She prefers Swinburne to Shelley, Faulkner to Hemingway, and can be found on most rainy days curled up with a good book and a cup of earl gray, hot
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