Marie’s Reading “The Witch Elm” by Tana French

witch elmAfter being beaten nearly to death in a robbery, Toby heads to Ivy House, the old family manse, where his uncle Hugo is dying of brain cancer.  Toby’s always considered himself a very fortunate guy, until the attack and his less than full recovery afterward.  While he’s trying to heal at Ivy House as well as care for his uncle, a human skull is found in an elm tree on the property.

Of course a whole skeleton follows, which brings the detectives calling.  Whose body is it?  How did it get there?  Toby, caring for Hugo and not having the greatest memory after the attack, tries to answer these questions as best he can–both for himself and for the detective who seems to have Toby on the list of suspects.

French’s writing is lavishly detailed and so finely wrought you want to savor every sentence.  The story is atmospheric and compelling, and the characters are all well-developed and authentic.  There’s still an element of crime fiction in this stand-alone, but it takes a backseat to a story of identity and family.  It’s also fun to see the other side of the usual stories French writes, which focus on the detectives of the Dublin Murder Squad and their investigations. Here we’re with Toby the whole time as he tries to piece together his recollections and make sense of the present.

I really enjoyed the relationship between Toby and his cousins, Leon and Susanna.  They grew up together, almost like siblings, and their bond is clear, in all its complexity and history.  A lot of their relationship relies on memory now, and memory is a big theme in the novel–how people experience and thus remember things very differently, including relationships.

If you enjoyed French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, definitely check this one out–it’s not a crime novel, as I said, so you might miss that, but everything else great about French’s work is on display here.  Fans of Gillian Flynn and Kate Atkinson who haven’t tried French yet certainly should as well.

–Marie

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