“The Witch Elm” offers spin on luck

Tana French has a usual routine of producing crime novels narrated by detectives. In her stand-alone novel, the new voice of a regular person is enticing.

In the murder mystery novel “The Witch Elm,” author Tana French conveys the darkness of crime and how ordinary people’s lives unravel in it.

French is a highly regarded crime fiction writer. Her novels are typically narrated by a savvy group of detectives whom she dubs the Dublin Murder Squad. French has won numerous awards including the Los Angeles Times award for Best Mystery/Thriller. Her novel “In the Woods” was adapted into a TV drama series on BBC called “Dublin Murders.” Stephen King recently reviewed her novel for The New York Times.

Set in a sprawling suburb of Dublin, Ireland, “The Witch Elm” is not narrated by one of her usual intelligible detectives but instead from the perspective of a seemingly normal civilian named Toby Hennessey.

What is fascinating about Hennessey’s perspective is how he becomes tangled in a murder mystery. And not only is Hennessey linked to this crime geographically, but it also appears throughout the novel that he is at one point the victim, witness, suspect and even the murderer.

“The Witch Elm” is a literary contemplation on luck. Hennessey claims from the very first line, “I’ve always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person.” However, the novel takes the reader through elements of Hennessey’s story where it seems his luck has run out and he is faced with several obstacles to overcome.

Hennessy is an unreliable narrator, having suffered head injuries from a traumatic robbery that takes place early on in the book. He is a white male from an affluent, devoted family and it is very clear that his flaws stem from certain privileges like propelling through life without worrying over prejudices or money.

Everything comes naturally for Hennessy, whether it is socializing with friends or playing sports during his teenage years. But after he is robbed in his own home, Hennessy is suddenly aware of how mentally weak and vulnerable he is. Then the remains from a human skeleton are found in his family’s gardens and all his self-proclaimed luck shatters.

French’s writing style is similar to Gillian Flynn’s “Sharp Objects” or Stephen King’s “Hearts in Atlantis.” Similar to her fellow crime writers, the voice in French’s novel is so strong and captivating. Though the choices and motivations of the main character are questionable, it is hard for the reader not to feel excited and empathetic towards him.

“The Witch Elm” is 505 pages long. The novel takes place on the Hennessy family estate. Hennessy and his cousins try to understand why there was a human skeleton in the witch elm. They wonder why it was a teenager from their high school years, and why exactly detectives are investigating them for murder.

By the middle of the novel, the reader sees how Hennessy’s confidence has spiraled into a neurosis that includes immense anxiety. It compels him to manipulate those around him.

However, “The Witch Elm” is more refreshing than your typical crime saga because Hennessy’s character is actually likable. French has a talent for sharp detail, and Hennessy’s internal voice is distinctly unique.

“In the Woods” is not so much about the crime, but about what happens to the everyday people it affects. It’s about how people deal with crime and how they cope with being interrogated by detectives.

French uses local vernacular to make the reader feel as if they’ve been placed in the Irish setting. Often, French describes the expansive gardens which I find serene and enchanting.

At one point, Hennessy recognizes that he might have committed the murder, but he doesn’t actually have any memory of it because of his head trauma. More than just being a cold-blooded killer, Hennessy battles deeply with the realization that he is not the stable, easy-going person he once was.

Life was easy for Hennessy, and then his fate irrevocably changed. Hennessy’s story reflects how common people are affected by tragedy and circumstance. “The Witch Elm” could be pinned as a critique on class and privilege, but it goes deeper than that.

This book conveys how luck operates in a socially constructed world. “The Witch Elm ” does not mask how some people have it better, but imagines a story where lucky people are engulfed in sadness, death and tragedy.

In the end, Hennessy is once again saved by his luck. But, being the reader and having experienced the rest of the book, it makes me question altogether: ‘is it really worth it being that lucky?’

Edited by George Frey | gfrey@themaneater.com

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