As far as unreliable narrators go, you can’t get more unreliable than a person who has recently suffered a traumatic brain injury. In Tana French’s latest novel The Witch Elm (and her first standalone novel, devoted fans of her Dublin Murder Squad series will have to be satisfied with just Dublin and Murder this time as no squad is to be found here), blandly handsome and affable Toby Hennessy is charged with narrating the events leading up to, and following, the discovery of the body of one of his high school pals on his family’s property. Only thing is, Toby’s brain ain’t so good following a home invasion and robbery that left him with severe injuries. As a result, Toby is as confused about events that took place in his childhood as he is about the current state of things. Or is he?
Here’s the official synopsis:
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.
Having such a damaged protagonist can be frustrating at times; the unreliable narrator trope is so often vexing and tiresome. However, Tana is an excellent technician. To trust her is to be rewarded with purposeful prose and compelling insight into her characters. Toby represents more than just himself, he’s also a stand-in for oblivious privilege. The mystery of the depth and breadth of Toby’s impairments, are a mystery to him as well. He’s a wealthy white dude who everybody loves (or so he’s always thought), to whom things have always come easily, and who’s never had cause to examine his privilege as such. When suddenly confronted with his own disability and limitations, panic, rage, and questionable behavior ensue. This leaves the reader wondering if Toby is a cunning killer, a clueless dipshit, or possibly both.
The titular Witch Elm and the discovery of the victim don’t arrive until well into the second quarter. I listened to this on audiobook so I can’t say exactly how far in, but several hours at least (the book clocks in at 528 pages). And it’s not until we meet the rest of Toby’s family, namely his two cousins with whom he shared weekends and summers growing up, that his previous life of ease comes into relative (sorry not sorry) focus. Turns out Toby and his boys weren’t all that much fun to be around, according to Susanna and Leon. And so as in any good murder mystery, the list of suspects includes anybody with a pulse. That means Toby’s almost too-good-to-be-true girlfriend, his school chums, and his doddering, cancer-ridden uncle, are all subject to the reader’s scrutiny.
Overall, I really enjoyed The Witch Elm. There were enough red herrings to have me changing my mind several times about who I was sure the killer was, but not so many to be distracting. Most were resolved efficiently and without too much fuss. The unavoidable “I did it and here’s exactly how” revelation was satisfying and thorough, and the atmosphere, dialog and plotting were skillfully done. If I had one squabble it would be that there were two or three additional Scooby-Doo mask revelations that came after we already learn how the murder went down. It added unnecessary bulk to a book that was already too long for a murder mystery. That said, fans of Tana French will probably dig this book. It’s way better than The Likeness! And for those who have never read her work before, it’s a great point of entry into her world of murder in Dublin, hold the squad.
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