In Tana French’s The Witch Elm, the reader is left to wonder:
If you don’t remember something, did it really happen?
Last year, Tana French stepped away from her acclaimed Dublin Murder Squad series with a stand-alone literary mystery (published by Viking) 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 brain? 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 nuances as the answer to the murder mystery is slowly uncovered.
When I originally reviewed this book, I was ambivalent about the ending, mainly in terms of certain characters not behaving in ways that were consistent with how they had presented throughout the novel. Shortly afterward, I found a terrific interview with Tana French on the always thought-provoking site Electric Lit. The article’s title, Tana French’s The Witch Elm Is an Exploration of White Male Privilege, is perhaps inevitable in the #MeToo era, but French’s central thesis is more nuanced than that headline suggests. As she says about conceiving the novel’s plot, “Mainly, I was thinking about the connection between luck and empathy. If we’ve been too lucky in one area of life, that can stunt our ability to empathize with people who haven’t been that lucky.” I’ve been guilty of this myself, assuming that because I found certain college classes easy that anyone who didn’t wasn’t trying hard enough. Not a good look, that!
I’ve enjoyed all of French’s books in the Dublin Murder Squad series, but this book’s standalone status isn’t a letdown in any way. As regular readers of French know, the DMS series does not follow the same cast of characters throughout. Each book places a different detective at the center of the story, with their colleagues whom we’ve come to know in previous books appearing in passing or not at all. For me, that’s one of the aspects that keeps the series so fresh and lively, but it also means that The Witch Elm doesn’t seem like a big departure. It’s still a murder mystery in Dublin, only told from a point of view outside the police station.
So no, The Witch Elm isn’t technically part of that series, but it shares the genetic code that makes French’s previous work so compelling: A firm grasp on the intricacies of plotting a murder mystery, believable characters (not to be confused with likable, necessarily), and a gift for keen observation and description that bring the settings alive. More real than reality, in some ways. Whatever that may be.