The Witch Elm by Tana French (audio)

I have read and loved several books by Tana French now, although I think The Likeness has been my favorite. Like I’ve done with a few, this one I listened to. These Irish mysteries are just so lovely done in the appropriate accent, that lilting, musical, rhythmic speech.

The Witch Elm is no exception: Paul Nugent’s reading is dramatic and gorgeous and full of character. I got everything I wanted out of the audio format here.

As a book, I have some pros and cons. Some of what Tana French does best is in full evidence. There is an overwhelming, overarching atmosphere of foreboding and gloom. The narrator, Toby, refers almost immediately to how everything changed, went horribly wrong, starting with “that night.” He talks almost immediately about the Ivy House, about how lucky he was to have it, how it scarcely seems possible it was ever more than a dream. When he starts his story with “that night,” then, and when we first encounter the Ivy House, the foreshadowing could hardly be heavier. This sort of thing could be overbearing, but I don’t find it so; I love Tana French’s style, and this is an important part of it. There is an underlayer too of nostalgia, of a yearning appreciation of a beauty just out of reach, that melds nicely with foreboding; this feels to me like French’s signature.

The mildest of spoilers here: Toby is somewhat an unreliable narrator. I think you feel this early on. For one thing, his admitted lucky, golden-boy aura and life experience makes him quick to wail about the slightest wrongs he suffers, and minimize his own agency in certain events. But that’s not exactly what I mean by unreliable narrator. I mean that classic, delicious literary feature wherein we’re not sure if we should trust the story as it’s told to us, because the narrator might be lying, or mentally ill, or confused. I love this stuff.

The plot, too, was strong, and I think this is another of French’s greatest talents. (I am still reeling at The Likeness.) I enjoyed its complexity, and the sense throughout that there was something I couldn’t see or understand, yet, that was just around the next corner. Certain connections that Toby insists upon are never proven, but this is part of his frustrating unreliability as narrator.

All good so far, right? My biggest criticism of this book is in its length and pacing. Look, I enjoyed it all the way through. But for a good stretch, in the second half, I felt that things could have been sped up more than a little bit. There is a delicate balance between drawing out suspense and letting it hang too long in midair, and I think it’s been poorly handled here. I enjoy French’s characteristic gloomy atmosphere, and the music of Nugent’s reading, enough that it didn’t bother me too much; I think readers with less investment will be bothered still more. We could have moved things along without losing anything. This feeling was exacerbated by Toby’s self-pity. While I think less-than-likeable lead characters are an interesting and often fruitful artistic choice, a whiny one who is allowed to spend too long wallowing can begin to grate. After writing these lines, I’ve checked a few reviews; most find The Witch Elm expertly crafted, but this Washington Post review is more in line with my own reactions:

It’s very eerie; it’s also quite hefty and static for long stretches. Whether you find the novel satisfying will probably depend on how much you care about action vs. atmosphere. French expertly crafts a cloud cover of thickening menace throughout this extended narrative, but the storm doesn’t break until the very end. By then, even the most patient reader may be excused for being exhausted from all the bleak moodiness that preceded it.

I love action and atmosphere, and I did enjoy this book, but again, I counsel caution for all but the most French-devoted reader (or one who knows she’s ready for a long, atmospheric build-up). (Bonus: the WaPo review is written by Maureen Corrigan. What fun.)

French’s characters tend to be a strength, but I think they waver slightly here. Toby is well developed (although not terribly likeable). His cousins and Uncle Hugo moderately so; there is enough meat there (if you’ll forgive the usage) to appreciate them. His girlfriend Melissa is a weakness, though. Her entire reason for being here is to serve as a ray of sunshine for Toby; she is indefatigably peppy and optimistic, which I find annoying in real life and less than credible on the page. The cops, on the other hand, feel quite real. (Recall that French often writes from their point of view. Hmm.)

A final qualification for this book: it’s tricky to give a trigger warning with a novel of suspense, like this one, and I rarely deal in trigger warnings anyway. But here I do think it should be said: if you deal with trauma regarding serious, terrorist-level stalking, heads up.

Despite my criticisms, I am here for more Tana French and on the whole enjoyed this one quite a bit. Look for me to get into The Trespasser sometime soon. As for a recommendation on this one, it depends on your capacity for patience and your commitment to French’s distinctive style. If you do read/have read The Witch Elm, I’d be very interested in your opinion!


Rating: 6.5 candlesticks.

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