The Witch Elm: A Novel

by Tana French

Hardcover, 2018

Call number




Viking (2018), Edition: First Edition, 528 pages


"A brilliant new work of suspense from "the most important crime novelist to emerge in the past 10 years." (Washington Post) From the writer who "inspires cultic devotion in readers" (The New Yorker) and has been called "incandescent" by Stephen King, "absolutely mesmerizing" by Gillian Flynn, and "unputdownable" (People), comes a gripping new novel that turns a crime story inside out. 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. A spellbinding standalone from one of the best suspense writers working today, The Witch Elm asks what we become, and what we're capable of, when we no longer know who we are"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member rosalita
Tana French steps away from her acclaimed Dublin Murder Squad series with a stand-alone literary mystery that is less a conventional whodunit than an extended riff on the vagaries of memory and the mutability of character and personality.

Toby is a 20-something social media manager for a Dublin art gallery when he suffers a traumatic brain injury during a robbery. Even after his physical injuries have healed, he struggles with anxiety and his lack of memory of the attack. In an attempt to re-focus his attention outward, he and his girlfriend Melissa move into Ivy House as companions to his favorite uncle, Hugo, who has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. When a dead man is discovered on the property, the family has to cope with police intrusion and the veil of suspicion that falls on all of them.

Toby comes across as a classic unreliable narrator — but is he really? Is he hiding things from the reader, or are things hidden from both the reader and himself by his own mind? If you don't remember something, did it really happen? And who do you believe when you're presented with alternate versions of events that you were involved in but cannot remember for yourself? It's a fascinating puzzle, and French explores all the pieces of it as the answer to the murder mystery is slowly uncovered.

In the end, I found the resolution both satisfying and unsatisfying for a variety of reasons that I won't spoil here, but I haven't been able to stop thinking about it, which seems like a pretty good effect for a book to deliver.
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LibraryThing member bookworm12
This is the first book from French outside of her Dublin Murder Squad series. The pacing is slow, but the characters are captivating. The story is told from the POV of a suspect, Toby, rather than a detective. His Uncle Hal and his old Ivy house are wonderful. Once the novel settles into life there it really pulled me in. The story sometimes gets bogged down with its own twists but the writing makes it worth it. Not my favorite of her novels, but you can’t beat her atmospheric writing.… (more)
LibraryThing member librarian1204
A departure from the Dublin Murder Squad series has Tana French telling a very troubling story of the young up and coming publicist, Toby Hennessy.
Toby has the advantages, education, family background, girl friend and luck.
Until his luck runs out or does it?
Intense and unsettling, the plot follows Toby as he experiences an assault that nearly kills him, through the months following as he recuperates at the family’s ancestral home, Ivy House, where the Wych elm dominates the back yard.
Beautifully written , atmospheric, a book that gives the reader much to ponder.
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
3.5 In this rather lengthy stand alone, French again explores the sense of identity, as well as the question, How well do we really know another person? Three cousins, children of four brothers, who have all spent their summers, vacations from school at the house where their unmarried Uncle Hugh lives. Grown up now, not as close as they once were, they all come together after Toby is attacked in his apartment and left for dead. Although he makes it, he has lingering effects from the attack, one being his memory which has huge holes, blank spaces.

So who is he now? He no longer feels like himself, far from the capable man he had thought he was. When a body is found in the old witch tree in his Uncle Hugh's garden, the Garda is notified. When it turns out t be someone they know, all come in suspicion, especially it seems Toby. The one Garda, reminded me so much of Peter Falk, playing Colombo. Dating myself I know. So the story goes,the very slow unraveling of a history of the characters. Intriguing story, well written as all of her novels are, the pace is very slow, and the pages long. One needs patience here, need to be in the mood for a slow burner. There are plenty of surprises, the characters interesting, myself I had a soft spot for Uncle Hugh, and the questions posed within, important ones.

More a character study than a thriller I believe, though there are a few action scenes. I enjoyed this, but not as much as some of her previous works. Have a soft spot for her Dublin murder squad.

ARC from Netgalley.
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LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
The witch elm sits at the bottom of the garden of the Dublin house once inhabited by Toby's grandparents. Now and during his teenage years, it has been lived in by Uncle Hugo, a gentle, easy-going man who allowed the teenage cousins, Toby, Susanna and Leon, to live there during the summer holidays and to hold parties. It's the place where the entire extended family gathers.

Toby is a young man with a job he loves, being in charge of PR for a prominent art gallery. He has an airy, modern flat, drives a BMW and has a girlfriend he adores. He's a charming guy who has always sailed through life until suddenly his luck changes, when he wakes one night to the sounds of intruders in his home.

Tana French takes her time setting the scene, developing the characters and their relationships with one another before she dives into the central mystery. She's less concerned with the crime than with how crime impacts the members of the Hennessy family, and especially Toby. While The Witch Elm lacks some of the heart and easy familiarity of her Dublin Murder Squad series, this is French's most skilled and complex novel to date and one well worth reading.
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
After being violently attacked during a burglary in his apartment, the normally unflappable Toby is no longer able to spend nights alone. At his cousin Susanna’s request, he agrees to stay at his family’s ancestral home to look after his uncle Hugo, recently diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. And perhaps the time off from work and the peaceful setting will speed Toby’s recovery. But one afternoon during a family gathering a skull is discovered in the trunk of a wych elm tree in the garden, and the subsequent investigation throws the family into chaos.

The victim turns out to be someone known to Toby and his cousins, but it’s hard to imagine how the skull ended up in the tree. Was it in any way related to the burglary and attack? The police investigation has so many twists that almost any character in the novel could have committed the crimes. Tana French kept the suspense on high from start to finish, bringing forward more than one plausible suspect with only the number of pages remaining as a clue to whether they were really “the one.”

I found Toby rather obnoxious and self-centered, but that made for the most interesting aspect of this novel. While the attack damaged Toby’s memory and made him an unreliable narrator, in a painfully emotional scene with cousins Susanna & Leon, they revealed how Toby’s white male privilege caused him to minimize, discard, or “forget” key events in their lives. This behavior turned out to be a significant contributing factor in the victim’s untimely death. While it took Tana French a long time (508 pages!) to wrap up all the loose ends in this book, there is much to admire and think about.
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LibraryThing member bogopea
Fabulous. As slow as the first 200 pages or so were, the last were filled with twists and turns hard to keep up with. A "spell-binding" novel centered around one young man, Toby, who always considered himself to have lived a charmed life who had found the love of his life, had a job he liked and fully expected to have the idyllic bungalow filled with friends and family in the future. He grew up with privilege as an only child but shared summers with two cousins at the family's ancestral home (Ivy House), occupied by his benevolent uncle, Hugo. But as the book opens, Toby is beaten in a home invasion which has long-lasting consequences (including memory loss) and he goes back to Ivy House to recuperate, at the same time Uncle Hugo is diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. That is the stage setting. No spoilers. This is crime fiction at it's best.… (more)
LibraryThing member PatsyMurray
While Toby, the protagonist, and everyone around him are not pleasant to encounter, this book plunges you into a dark psyche that is only too familiar: the smart, confident young man who has had everything handed to him and is so certain he can control everything and everyone around him. It demonstrates what someone can do once they get the chain of events started, and yet how little they understand the potential outcomes. Life is not really a chess game. It's a depressing book, but one that rings horribly true, even if the events are over the top. If anything, that lack of realism is what allows you to keep reading and recognize the value of what French is trying to do here.… (more)
LibraryThing member ehines
Well-written as you'd expect from French. Interesting and complex characters. Different from many of her previous novels though. Not told from the perspective of the Murder Squad. And also constructed as a sort of parable about privilege. More-or-less, French is trying to do some work explaining this concept within a mystery/thriller in much the same way as To Kill a Mockingbird sought to make us understand racism better within a courtroom drama.

Neither novel is *just* a parable and neither is singularly fixated on the one issue, but the parable element is fairly strong in both.

For all its faults, Harper Lee's novel was a huge success in dramatizing the ugliness of racism and driving home to readers the injustice of a justice system and a social system built to ensure white dominance over blacks.

Behind Lee's parable were naked injustices. Long-running atrocities, really, which every reader should have been aware of without the novel.

Privilege, though, isn't just about recognizing injustice. It's about a specific way of figuring how injustice works. And frankly it's pretty thin as a explanatory mechanism even within a scenario built to illustrate it. From go we are told that the lead character is "lucky" and a lot of the novel is spend trying to illustrate that his luck is somehow associated with his being a white, middle-class, heterosexual male. But neither his luck nor his complete obliviousness nor his forgetfulness of the long-ago past ring true. The majority of the incidents meant to illustrate these characteristics seem imposed, and the characteristics themselves seem parodically exaggerated.

If privilege is a good way of figuring the way injustice gets perpetuated French faces a dilemma in trying to illustrate it: either she constructs a scenario as subtle as the reality of it would be, and thus risk most of her readers completely missing the point, or she creates an exaggerated scenario which causes people like me to question the veracity of the parable if it requires so much amplification to be effective.

I don't think the solution here is terribly good.

What is good is pretty much everything about the novel aside from the parable elements, so this is still a worthy read which I happily read to the last page.
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LibraryThing member gypsysmom
Tana French has been lauded for her writing and her "ingenious plotting" by people who know a lot more about those subjects than I do (like Stephen King) but I concur with that assessment. I've only read one other book by her but I intend to read more.

Toby has lived a charmed life--he's good looking, intelligent, charming and, above all, lucky. At the age of twenty-eight he has a great job as the public relations person for a Dublin art gallery, he has a girlfriend who he adores and who adores him, he's got good mates and a close family. He has no siblings but his two cousins, Leon and Susanna, are his age and because they spent each summer with their uncle Hugo in his huge old house while their parents vacationed together they are closer perhaps than siblings would have been. Then his life is torn asunder one night when Toby's flat is broken into and he is badly beaten by the robbers. He has continuing neurological problems which may or may not resolve over time. He is not fit for work and he is terrified of being alone in his apartment. So, when his cousin Susanna tells him that Uncle Hugo is dying of brain cancer and he could use someone to move in with him, Toby decides to give it a go. He convinces his girlfriend Melissa to move in with him and it all seems to be working well for everyone. One Sunday when the whole clan has gathered at Hugo's house for lunch Susanna's two youngsters make a terrifying discovery. They find a skull in a hollow in a big wych elm at the end of Hugo's garden. Soon the police are crawling all over the garden where they discover a complete skeleton which turns out to be a classmate of Toby and Leon's who went missing the summer after they graduated from school. Everyone assumed he had committed suicide because he got such bad marks he couldn't get into any post-secondary schools. Of course the police soon determine he was killed and put into the tree to hide him. Did Toby kill him? Some evidence seems to point to him. When you finally learn who the guilty party was you can see how deftly French set this up. And then there is a final little twist that will leave your head spinning.

Remarkably good.
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LibraryThing member pgmcc
The Wych Elm by Tana French 513 pages

I found this a well written murder mystery with realistic characters and an almost Gothic-in-a-modern-setting feel to it. There was an old family house; a family secret; an evil villain; a murder; and the threat of dungeons, well, prison cells.

The characters include professional, Dublin millennials, totally focused on having fun; their parents, who are well-to-do meaning the millennials are of the more privileged members of society; members (both uniformed and detectives) of An Garda Síochána (the Irish police force); a handful of less privileged members of society who would be, and are, looked down upon by the main characters; the Ivy House. The Ivy House is the family home that has been in the family for four generations. It has to be considered as a character in this tale as it is the hub of the story and is instrumental in defining the socio-economic status of the characters and their position in the privileged class.

Tana French does an excellent job of portraying the lives and attitudes of the families who have lived in the big old houses in the rich leafy suburbs that are now some of the most expensive real-estate in the country, and whose children are the fodder of the modern Millenial business world, people who believe they are indestructible and that rules and laws are for others.

I came to this book having just read two other murder mysteries, [47 Seconds] and [The Hunting Party]. As soon as I started reading [The Wych Elm] I knew I was dealing with an author whose writing skill was infinitely better than that of the authors of my earlier two reads.

I am giving this book 3.5 stars out of 5. For me a 3 represents a good book. 3.5 is praise indeed. I reserve 4 and above for books that teach me something and that I find to have interesting wordplay, or novel ideas and insights. [The Wych Elm] is a good read; it is an interesting murder mystery. I will read more books by Tana French, but I did not find myself making notes in the margin, putting comments in the back cover to remind me to go back to certain pages and reread wonderful ideas and phrases. This is the type of book I would read for a relaxing read. It is well written and entertaining and I will approach further Tana French books with that in mind. I would recommend it as a summer read.
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LibraryThing member auntmarge64
What a disappointment after all of French's previous titles. I read to the end, expecting some reward, but even the final dramatic moments were dulled by that time by the book's unnecessary length (by at least a third) and the main character's endless musings. Where or where was her editor? - or is she such a big name now no one will correct her? Very average.… (more)
LibraryThing member diana.hauser
THE WITCH ELM by Tana French.
I eagerly awaited its publication. I was not so much disappointed as a bit confused.
Smooth-talker, happy-go-lucky, privileged Toby Hennessey is left for dead at the hands of two (seemingly random) burglars. As he tries to recover from near-fatal injuries, Toby doesn’t really know who he is anymore, who he was in the past and what he is now capable of.
As the story progresses, Toby emerges as a bit of a selfish, mean-spirited, immature young man, who believes he is very lucky, charismatic and very deserving of all his privilege. Toby offers us a study in misguided, false perceptions of oneself.
The story is spooky and disarming and very clever. It is perplexing, chaotic and extremely devious. It centers on identity, on memory, on self-deception - with a very intimate look inside Toby’s mind.

The story (for me) was very unrealistic - all the conversations between Toby and the detectives; the inactivity of all the supposedly caring, over-protective parents; Uncle Hugo’s fragile grip on reality. I don’t really know these detectives - how they work, how they operate. I would not call this a police procedural at all. But the inconsistencies kept gnawing at me and diminishing the overall story. What ‘station’ do these detectives come from? No one seems to know (or care). Their banter, their discussions, their late-night visits to the Ivy House; their lack of supervision; their lack of search warrants; their bullying tactics; Uncle Hugo in a cell. Does any superior officer take note of this? Where are the privileged, educated parents? Hugo’s brothers?
The cousins make me cringe. And their circle of young school friends is deplorable.
This title is hard to pigeon-hole. Is it a mystery? Is it crime fiction? Is it suspense? Is it a psychological drama?
Yes to all of the above.
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LibraryThing member she_climber
My least favorite Tana French. It wasn't really a thriller, it really wasn't a psychological thriller, it really wasn't suspense, it wasn't really anything. It had such potential to be all these things but it was just a story that kept spinning and spinning around itself and never really came out anywhere. I kept waiting for a big Ah-ha! moment and it just really never came. She's got way too much good will built up with me though and I'll be right at the head of the line to buy her next book as soon as it comes out...hopefully back to the Dublin Murder Squad.… (more)
LibraryThing member Doondeck
Very well written but it took a long time to get resolution to the plot. I thought the ending was more of an add-on than was necessary to finish the story. I hope she goes back to the Dublin Murder Squad.
LibraryThing member franoscar
Could be spoilers. This book is too long. I don't feel it was time well spent. And I don't know why it got such good reviews. (Not so much from the readers here but I must have gotten it off of a "best of..." list.) I don't think that the characters made sense, & of course, people don't, but then why bother to write the book?… (more)
LibraryThing member angiestahl
Complicated reaction to this one which I'll try to process via written review, if not for anyone but myself.

If you're deciding to read it, a few key threads and elements involved: a couple of crimes and police investigations, long-held family secrets, the unreliability and vagary of memory - our own, others', those we share, as well as the possibility that we don't ever truly know the people we fancy ourselves closest to, including ourselves.

The story is told primarily through the POV of an unreliable narrator, but no one involved in the story is wholly reliable for differing reasons so the story is pieced together in chunks, from different memories and perspectives.

I've read other Tana French, but this doesn't seem to be the one to start with if you're new to her. Also, the tone seems different (not better or worse, just different) than what I remembered or felt reading her other books. The Dublin squad books are 'truer' detective stories in the usual sense, this felt outlook on life that involved detective story elements.

The writing is solid, with at least a couple of twists that I didn't see coming. However, there are probably chunks of filler that could have been edited out without cost to story, character/plot development or pacing. For me, it was a true page turner for about 30-40% of the book, with the rest a bit more of a slog.

The main characters were unlikable to varying degrees, with some key secondary characters remaining amorphous to the end, though I'm not sure it matters and may have been intentional. Personally, I wouldn't say I enjoyed getting to know any of them or even that I enjoyed the read, but when it was compelling and absorbing, it was completely so.

Emotionally and psychologically, this might be one of the most unsettling books I've ever read and I really want to take a mental bath. It's not because of gore or gruesomeness or even the copious drug use, but more just....a negative take on the butterfly effect mixed with a strong dose of fatalism. That's the basis for the unsettling part--books, among other things, allow you to try on different points of views and what this one seems to be saying is that our lives are a capriciously-manufactured house of cards.

If you think you have a good one, with more or less happy memories, and consider yourself a good person, that belief is less 'true,' than based on a construction of falsehoods and false memories and it can all come crashing down without warning, to break you into pieces beyond repair. Further, not only is that potentially unavoidable (that is, if you avoid it it's only because of dumb luck) and that if it happens, you probably deserved it all along.

I don't see the world, myself or other people that way, and it's a POV that I don't want to rent headspace to.
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LibraryThing member maryreinert
Not my normal read, but heard the author interviewed and got interested enough to check it out. It's big and probably a bit too long. However, except for a few points where I found the characters totally disgusting, it was a good read.

Toby Hennesey was born into a loving and prosperous family, had great childhood memories, had a good job, lovely girlfriend, and considered himself lucky. Until one night when his apartment was invaded and he was severely beaten up which caused a brain injury. Life went downhill and got very complicated after that.

Unable to work, he moved into Ivy House, a family home, and lived with his beloved unmarried uncle Hugh. Ivy House was a place of great memories as Toby and his cousins Leon and Susanne had spent much time there. At a family gathering, Toby's six year old nephew climbs up a huge elm tree and discovers a human skull hidden in the hollow tree. Police later find an entire body which had probably been there at least ten years. The body was soon identified as Dominic, a teenage acquaintance.

The story gets very convoluted as police question the family; Toby, due to his brain injury, isn't sure what to believe about himself, his memories, or his cousins. Eventually, confessions are made to each other, Hugo passes away from brain cancer, and Toby is a mess totally unsure what to believe.

The writing in the book is excellent; the characters for the most part are believable but not likeable, especially Leon and Susanne. The ending however, is believable and many of the lose ends are tied up, but not so neatly as they are unbelievable. No one lives happily ever after, but no one is totally lost. Might actually seek out more by this author.
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LibraryThing member MM_Jones
Loved the book, but it easily could have been trimmed. The opening third was too long, too full of apparently unnecessary details, I almost gave up. It could well have started in the hospital with flashbacks. Great character study, who could do what & their motivation. Refreshing use of the unreliable narrator. But I wonder, do the better Dublin hospitals really have "flyspecked" mirrors and "sticky green" floors?… (more)
LibraryThing member mojomomma
Toby survives an attack by burglars only to become embroiled in another mystery when he goes to stay with his failing uncle. His brain injury from the buglery doesn’t permit him to remember his last summer at his uncle’s house before he left for college. How did the skeleton of his school friend end up in the trunk of his uncle’s hollow elm tree?… (more)
LibraryThing member copyedit52
The author is intent on stretching herself in The Witch Elm. I can appreciate that she wanted to move beyond the Murder Squad mold of her other books, however:

The book is about a hundred pages longer than necessary to tell the story, partially because of the separate but related to-the-main-mystery story that opens and 400 pages later closes the novel. Yes, the reader needs to know the narrator/protagonist was mugged early on, since it effects him physically and psychologically, but that story could have been, should have been, less obtrusive.

Several of the events and character behaviors were unconvincing or unbelievable. This is in fact is more or less the case in her Murder Squad mysteries, but bothered me more in this book.

Parts were just too damn depressing, so much so that two-thirds in I disliked the narrator/protagonist enough to consider abandoning the book altogether.
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LibraryThing member brangwinn
This book well deserves the praise it has gotten. It’s creepy and has the reader confused right up to the end chapter. It is really different from her other books, and if you are expecting what she has written in the past you will be disappointed, but if you like watching an author grow and expand her writing style, you will enjoy this book. Yep, I still like her other books better, but I wasn’t disappointed in this one.… (more)
LibraryThing member Amysuzannej
Toby, the main character, was tough because he kept saying how nice he was but he just told this one lie or he just said this one awful thing, He reminded me of the main character of a book I was forced to read in college: The Stranger by Albert Camus. The book would have been great if only the main character had been a decent guy ;-)

This book is a great mystery with some interesting turns and some perceptions about how we think we protect people. I loved it. And Toby is a twerp.
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LibraryThing member froxgirl
When a series writer switches up to a standalone novel, devoted readers get the willies: uh oh, what about [insert beloved characters here], and they tend to be wary and suspicious of the new. But since I worship at the altar of Tana French, she of the six exquisite Dublin Murder Squad mysteries, I put myself on the endless wait list at our library for The Witch Elm and was not disappointed. Sure, I missed the camaraderie of the detectives, but this one's got two of her standard smart-but-awful ones on the periphery. At the center is Toby, the epitome of a white privileged urban Dublin dudebro until he suffers both a work setback and a horrendous, seemingly random break-in and assault. His family sends him off to care for Uncle Hugo, a genealogist dying of cancer at Ivy House, the genteelly decaying family mansion. Even before Toby has even begun to recover, and as Hugo gets sicker, a skull is found in the garden, and we're off to the races. French is known for her many red herrings and her insertion of odd events that go nowhere, and both are strongly in evidence (ha!) here. And she hasn't lost a step. Some readers won't like the lack of likable characters, but that's also a French hallmark; they are always few and far between. But the gradual ratcheting up of the tension - you feel like a wet rag being twisted in strong hands throughout – glues the reader to the pages until the cascading series of denouements results in a rocky but satisfying ending.

Quotes: “That spike of terror went through me again. He was like a raptor, not cruel, not good or evil, only and utterly what he was. The purity of it, unbreakable, was beyond anything I could imagine."

"If I had been some tracksuited skanger from a family of dole rats, the whole thing would have played out differently."
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LibraryThing member sberson
One of the best she has written. Not a Dublin police story- a stand-alone novel. Great depth in character description and plot.




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