Viking, 528 pages, $28
I am among the Tana French fans who yearn for the next book as soon as one is finished. I love the consistency of her inconsistency. I love how the only thing you can count on with French is how you will eventually stumble across the unexpected. She can mix the natural with a hint of the supernatural, the striving to be good with the lapsing into the bad.
Rich, poor, lucky, unlucky Toby is our narrator. He was born blessed and cursed by a charm and glibness that hasn’t forced him into understanding his deeper character. Then one day he is attacked, an attack so vicious that he is left with longstanding physical repercussions. His memory and sense of self seem to be faulty. Who is he now that he cannot rely on being what he was before? That may be convoluted syntax, but it is an accurate question. Anyway, French loves the convoluted.
While he is recuperating, Toby repairs to Ivy House, where his Uncle Hugo lives, with his girlfriend Melissa. Toby and Melissa are also there to take care of Hugo, who is in the last stages of an incurable illness. Ivy House is where Toby spent his summers with his cousins Susanna and Leon, as his careless parents, aunts and uncles frolicked in sunny climes. Hugo was the preferred de facto parent anyway. As the cousins grew older, teenage bacchanals raged in Hugo’s immense back yard garden. Is it any surprise that in the end the garden itself harbored a terrible secret?
The police have been a periodic presence in Toby’s life recently. They are still trying to find out who attacked him. Then other officers and detectives are called in to unravel the secret of the wych elm, the expansive, dominating presence of the garden. The elm has spit out a nasty little bit which must be dealt with by everyone. In a metaphor for Toby’s extended family, I suppose, the elm is cut down in order to examine the diseased parts.
Frankly, it’s not so much about the crimes, one of which takes a backseat to the other to the point of almost disappearing. It’s about the people. It’s about whether Toby is an unreliable narrator, so unreliable even he doesn’t realize the scope of his veracity. It’s onion-peeling time for French. And I don’t mean that in a culinary sense.
French excels at exposing the past to inform the present. No one is innocent or without a secret. “The Witch Elm” is a long book, and at times I pleaded for French to get to the point. That may say something more about me than French’s writing, however. It is in her nature to paint layer upon layer, so what you expect is turned about by what is next revealed.
Where are you now, Toby? Who are you now? In the very end, we must once again adjust what we think we know, and that is French’s ultimate present to her readers.
Oh, okay, it’s Tana French, so MBTB star — although, nasty bit that I am, it was too long!