Stepping away from the procedurals she’s become so known for, Tana French’s latest standalone asks a number of thought-provoking questions wrapped in a nail-biting plot.
Toby Hennessy has it all. He’s good-looking, has a great job in an art gallery, people always seem to like him, and he has a wonderful girlfriend named Melissa. On the outside, he oozes confidence. On the inside, he’s smart, calm, and calculated. Great things seem to happen to him more than others, and for the most part, life comes easily to him. He excels at almost everything he does, and very few things present him a challenge. Privileged and well aware of that fact, Toby skates through life with very little effort until, without warning, everything suddenly changes.
Upon returning from work one night, Toby stumbles into his apartment to find two men in his home. Interrupting their attempt to rob him, the burglars throw Toby a beating that nearly kills him. Though he survives, it’s made clear that the story’s protagonist is not the same following the brutal attack. As if his luck and good fortune finally had suddenly ran out, Toby’s left clinging to life, but the confidence he once has is dead. So too is his easy-going demeanor and fearless approach to living his life. What’s left is a changed man who struggles to cope with the person he’s suddenly become.
For Toby, dealing with the physical pain is only half of the battle. Even more challenging is the mental toll he feels from suffering a newfound identity crisis. His changed appearance and pain are daunting to overcome at first, but the lingering paranoia and anxiety have turned him from a calm and confident man to a twenty-something-year-old who lives in a permanent state of unease and fear, and whose once sharp mind is suddenly plagued with gaps in his memory.
During his recovery, Toby learns that his Uncle Hugo has inoperable brain cancer. Realizing that he can still serve a purpose, Toby and Melissa move into Hugo’s home so that Toby can care for him in his final days, and things eventually begin to even out for him personally. The new sense of purpose does wonders for him, and the three bond, acting as a family unit, which Toby enjoys. However, just as things begin to look up, the story takes a wicked turn when a human skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree in the property’s garden, promoting a host of questions.
As police begin their investigation, Toby starts to question what he thought he knew about his family, and even himself. While his search leads him in a familiar direction, prompting readers to believe they know where the story is headed, French reverses course and shatters all preconceived assumptions about the plot. The sudden about-face turns the story on its head, and while some of the ensuing twists fall a tad flat, others hit with thundering force, setting up a suspense-fueled final act that has a big payoff for those who stay patient as things develop.
While the overall pacing is fairly slow, French does pick things up a bit as the story unfolds. That said, even with the intrigue early on, the opening pages feel a bit dull at times as the author takes her time developing the characters and setup. Once things are ready to roll, though, French delivers one shock after another, building the tension as the final act takes off, then goes out with a bang.
Other than a slow start, which Tana French makes up for and then some, The Witch Elm twists and turns its way to a shocking ending that most readers will never see coming.
Author: Tana French
Pages: 528 (Hardcover)
Release Date: October 9, 2018
Book Spy Rating: 7.0/10
Praised as “one of today’s finest book reviewers” by New York Times bestselling author Gayle Lynds, Ryan Steck (“The Godfather of the thriller genre” — Ben Coes) has “quickly established himself as the authority on mysteries and thrillers” (Author A.J. Tata). He currently lives in Southwest Michigan with his wife and their six children.