Tana French — she of the lusciously complex sentences, she of the dense and eerie atmospheres — is one of the greatest crime novelists writing today. But what sets her apart from her peers isn’t only her formidable gifts as both a prose style and a storyteller. It’s her understanding that when she’s writing about crime, she’s writing about power.
In a Tana French book, to commit a crime is to scrabble desperately for power in a system designed to render you weak and helpless, and to keep you that way. And to solve a crime is to take that power back for yourself, regardless of whether the world wants you to have it or not.
French’s last book, The Trespasser, was about gendered power, and the options available to women when they need to find a way to be more powerful than a man. But her new book The Witch Elm — a richly engrossing mystery, and her first novel that doesn’t take place within the Dublin Murder Squad series — is about systemic social power more broadly, about privilege. It looks at what it’s like to live in the world as a white, middle-class, non-disabled straight man, and all the easy, unthinking power that can accrue to a person who gets to live like that — then it takes that power away.
The hero of The Witch Elm has everything going for him, until he doesn’t
“I’ve always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person,” says protagonist Toby at the opening of The Witch Elm. By lucky, Toby mostly means privileged, but he doesn’t use that word because Toby doesn’t deign to use such “self-flagellating middle-class” language. Toby is the golden boy of his family, a rising star whose effortless charm has landed him an angelic girlfriend and made him a PR force to be reckoned with at just 27 years old. He has the privilege of not caring about such things.
Or he does until the first of two traumatic inflection points, two “that night”s that come in ponderous succession, each so horrifying that Toby can only speak vaguely about them. The first “that night” opens the novel, and it’s the night on which Toby’s apartment is burgled, and Toby himself is viciously beaten into unconsciousness. (The second “that night” comes much later, and part of its fairy tale spookiness will be spoiled for anyone who Googles the “wych elm” that gives the novel its title.)
In the wake of the attack, Toby finds himself fundamentally changed. His eyelid droops, his speech is slurred; he forgets things; he limps; he gets angry for no reason. People stop looking at him with unthinking respect and admiration. They start to pity him, and to think of him as someone who is not necessarily being correct and reasonable, who might in fact be hysterical and irrational. He is no longer assumed to be someone who can get the job done. He has lost his self-evident charm because he has lost some of his privilege.
But Toby still has enough privilege to have an Uncle Hugo with a large and beautiful house just waiting to accommodate him. And Hugo, recently diagnosed with brain cancer, needs a caregiver. So at the urging of his beloved cousins, Toby moves himself and his angelic girlfriend into Hugo’s house to recuperate and help tend to the ailing Hugo — only to find that Hugo’s house is harboring dark secrets.
As those secrets emerge, it becomes increasingly likely that they could well land Toby in jail, or worse. And Toby is enraged because he knows that before his accident, he would have had the privileged charm it takes to make such a threat disappear. Now he doesn’t. Which means that if he wants to avoid taking the fall for a crime that he didn’t commit, he’ll have to find the real culprit himself.
As Toby sets about trying to clear his name, we become increasingly trapped in the panicked, paranoid confines of his mind, all fragmented images and self-loathing vitriol. Toby is terrified both of what might happen to him if he doesn’t solve the crime and of what already has happened to him, of how fundamental parts of his personality and identity seem to have changed overnight in the wake of his accident, and French renders his terror in tight, tense clauses that pile on top of each other with mounting horror.
Adding to the horror is the fact that Toby cannot escape his fear. He can’t leave his own mind, and even his house isn’t a refuge. French has always had a genius for developing creepy, evocative settings, and most evocative of all is Hugo’s home, Ivy House. When Toby first arrives Ivy House it is a sanctuary of domestic bliss — all cozy pots of tea in the garden and curling up in a worn old chair for a nap — but as the book progresses, and danger comes ever closer to home, the house begins to deteriorate.
The beautiful garden is torn up and goes bleak and weedy. The house falls into disorder and decay. There is nowhere to hide, no asylum anywhere.
It’s terrifying — but it’s also oddly satisfying. Part of the pleasure of this book is watching Toby’s smug complacency, his belief that he sees the world correctly and that everyone else is just a little bit whiny, get slowly shredded into bits. As The Witch Elm begins, Toby has a tendency to roll his eyes at his cousin Susanna’s “social-justice-warrior shite,” dismissing it all as so much hysterical conspiracy theorizing. But by the end of the novel, he’s forced to recognize that Susanna isn’t the unreasonable one — he was, when he was insulated by his own “luck.”
When Toby finally realizes how wrong he has been all of his life, he’s fulfilling the great fantasy of marginalized people who know and love privileged straight cis white non-disabled men: What if, at last, something would force them to realize that they were wrong? The effect is vicious, and viscerally satisfying.
The Witch Elm is a rich, immersive, and spine-chilling book, because Tana French is great at what she does and she knows how to tell a story. But it’s also a scathing and insightful deconstruction of social privilege, coming from a master of the form at the height of her powers.