Book Review: The Witch Elm by Tana French
This is the book description from Goodreads:
“Toby is a happy-go-lucky charmer who’s dodged a scrape at work and is celebrating with friends when the night takes a turn that will change his life: he surprises two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Struggling to recover from his injuries, beginning to understand that he might never be the same man again, he takes refuge at his family’s ancestral home to care for his dying uncle Hugo. Then a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden - and as detectives close in, Toby is forced to face the possibility that his past may not be what he has always believed.
The Witch Elm asks what we become, and what we’re capable of when we no longer know who we are.”
I’ve read Tana French before, In The Woods, so I knew I was in for a good read. She has an admirable vocabulary that she uses deftly, tossing in seemingly random descriptions of even the most unimportant detail, thus painting a vivid picture that pulls you into the story. I don’t feel bogged down by these details - I think they add to the story. The narrator in The Witch Elm, Toby, tells his story in a conversational tone that makes you feel like you know him. But you don’t. Neither does he.
I could see the scenes as if they were in constant motion, actively creating the story. I sometimes forgot that I was reading a book: letters and spaces on a piece of paper. The story was alive. It was like I could see and hear the guys talking in the booth next to me. She has the ability to make your mouth water and to make you think you can smell the dirty streets of Dublin around you.
And the tension. Her beautiful imagery lulled me into a dreamlike state, where everything was just happening and I was an observer until suddenly something would go wrong in the story, so abruptly that it was shocking. The twists made me slightly dizzy as if my blood sugar had plummeted. She builds up to the twists so that you know they’re coming and dread the unknown, and of course, you can’t stop reading until you have the answer.
Her writing is refreshing like listening to someone speaking without a stutter or stammer when everyone else is doing so, and it’s easy to read quickly because it flows. She’s sparse with punctuation, so the sentences aren’t choppy, except when she writes short sentences and fragments to up the tension. She uses long stream-of-conscious sentences that keep the long narrative passages moving. I feel like I don’t have to put any effort into reading her writing. It’s like remembering something I already know.
One thing that I noticed throughout The Witch Elm is that she uses references to light in a way that an artist or photographer might, creating glare or casting shadows. Everything is crystal clear because it’s so well described. So many minor details make it real, such as the detective shaking a pen and scribbling with it before beginning to write down an interview answer, or a doctor’s smile indicating how much time he’d give his attention to them.
Her use of humor is understated, but sometimes she’d throw something in that made me almost burst out in laughter, and I felt a bit naughty because the subject itself was not funny. But it gave me a short relief from the subtle, creeping tension that had built up. Sometimes I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I did both at different times throughout reading this novel. The book included those emotions I love to experience when I read.
When researching what a witch elm was, I found this, which I think you’ll enjoy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Who_put_Bella_in_the_Wych_Elm%3F
But The Witch Elm isn’t the book I had hoped it would be, in spite of all of these accolades. I felt the plot slowed down in the middle, perhaps due to too much dialogue. There was one plot point that was predictable, and I hoped she wouldn’t go there before I got to the reveal, but she did. It’s been done too many times before. The predictability in this one section disappointed me.
And although I loved the overall plot, except for the point mentioned above, there were sections of the book, starting somewhere in the middle, where the plot was dribbled out and I felt like it took too long to get to the next plot point. The tension was gone by the time I reached that point. It felt like the slow reveal, at times, was too slow.
I have a friend who reads mainly mysteries and crime thrillers, and although he likes Ms. French’s plots, he doesn’t get lost in the writing the way I do. He does get bogged down in the details. He just wants the facts without all of the language that pulls me in. He, perhaps, wouldn’t have even finished the book because of the slow part that started in the middle of the book.
I am giving this book 4 out of 5 stars, and because of my friend, I’m recommending it to adults who love a good mystery or crime thriller and don’t mind, or in fact, love, that it’s made up of beautiful language and lucid description.
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Thanks for reading.