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.
This is a tough one. I really like Tana French. She’s one of those authors who I will always read, but not necessarily a release day grab. But I’ll get there. She’s always on my radar, and I’ll read everything she writes.
This one, however… This one made me realize how much I want a new Dublin Murder Squad book. Our main character here is Toby. He’s just a regular white dude, there’s nothing really special about him. He admits that so far he’s lived a fairly blessed life, with no real problems to deal with or issues to work through. He has a job he likes, a girlfriend he likes, and friends he sees on a regular basis.
All of that changes one night when two men break into his apartment and beat him severely. They leave him for dead, and he probably would have been, but that luck he talked about comes through again, and he manages to wake up enough to get some help.
He’s left pretty changed, though. Not only the physical injuries, which are substantial, and will probably last the rest of his life, but the PTSD he deals with.
Most of this book is a psychological study of Toby and how he’s dealing with these changes. He becomes almost a recluse, still living in the same apartment, and doing some of the PT he’s assigned, but not all of it, and not getting any help for the PTSD. Eventually, he needs to move back to his family home to help take care of a terminally ill uncle.
The story didn’t really take off until he’d been at the family home for a while, and until that point, frankly, it really dragged. The main mystery the book synopsis alludes to isn’t even discovered or suggested until almost 200 pages in, and even then, it’s very slow-moving.
The other big problem with it is that the entire book is told through Toby’s point of view, and, frankly, Toby is a jerk. He’s not an especially terrible jerk, he’s just that jerk we all know. He’s sailed through life, growing with at least an upper-middle-class background, has parents who adore him and support him in everything he does, a girlfriend who apparently lives for nothing so much as to tell Toby how amazing he is and how much she adores him, has a good job, makes a decent living, drives a nice car, gets together with his 2 best friends most weeks, and is pretty casually sexist, classist, and racist. He doesn’t even realize it and if confronted, would rattle off all the ways he’s none of those things. He has a girlfriend and is nice to her! He has friends who are black! His cousin is gay! Once he gave a homeless guy a sandwich! Etc, etc. A quote from Toby regarding the homeless and the poor:
They could have gone to school, instead of spending their time sniffing glue and breaking the wing mirrors off cars. They could have got jobs. The recession’s over; there’s no reason for anyone to be stuck in the muck unless they actually choose to be.
We all know this guy.
Which makes it hard to be on his side. Obviously, he didn’t deserve the beating he got. No one deserves something like that. I could even understand his treatment of his mother in the hospital after the attack. (He was awful to his mother, wanting to yell and scream at her, kick her out of the hospital room, never see her again, but completely fine with his father and had nothing bad to say about him. Because he’s so anti-sexist and definitely doesn’t have a problem with women.) Not only is his physical recovery going to be long, possibly forever, and the hardest thing he’s ever had to do, but his entire worldview has been changed. He’s no longer a golden boy who nothing bad could touch. And his recovery is going to take a lot of hard work, something Toby has admittedly never needed to do much of.
But it didn’t really change him that much. The brain injuries just meant it took him a few extra seconds to say the same judgemental, sexist, classist, racist stuff as before. He was still an asshole. And being in his head for so long was miserable.
The resolution to both who beat Toby, because it was clearly personal, for the beating to be so vicious, and who killed the person whose skull they found at the family home, was fine. Clearly the murder of the person in the garden was done by someone in the family, so our suspects were limited. The solution to that was both expected because of that, but also surprising because of the intricacy and detailed planning that went into the death. The final reveal of just exactly how each character had played into everything was surprising, Toby’s role especially.
But the final chapter or so was off for me. There was no reason for the final fight to go the way it did. It didn’t even make sense, and it took a book that was probably a 3.5 star read for me down to a solid 3.
Would I read more Tana French? Yes! Of course! I can’t imagine a situation where I wouldn’t. But I really hope her next book takes us back to the Dublin Murder Squad.