“Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?” asks an anonymous graffiti artist in 1944, following the grisly discovery by four children of a woman’s suffocated skeleton caught inside a tree.
“What is luck, and why on earth should I care?” asks The Witch Elm main character Toby Hennessy.
Within the world of mystery and doubt that Tana French creates in her 2018 mystery-suspense novel, The Witch Elm, these two questions are one and the same.
Tana French’s novel is an exploration of family, of privilege, and of responsibility. Main character Toby Hennessy is a man who, in his mind, is going places. His career in social media advertising for a local art gallery is taking off. His relationship to his impossibly perfect girlfriend promises him a future of stability and white-picket-fence family living. He has friends, money, and most importantly, he has his everlasting luck. Until, of course, Toby is badly injured in a break-in. His sense of his innate luck broken, Toby is tossed into a winding mystery that pits him against his family at a time when he needs them the most.
Toby Hennessy is not a likable character, and it works perfectly. French sets up her novel carefully. Toby, as a character, is a cautiously constructed lens through which French can talk about the main focus of the novel – the experience of social privilege. Toby sees his life through the lens of luck. French shows the reader that this luck is actually privilege. Toby is a well-off white man from a good educational background. Early in the novel, however, he is brutally attacked during a break in, and has to come to terms with elements of permanent disability, including memory and focus issues, mobility issues, facial tics and verbal struggles. Toby believes his luck has run out, and it shatters everything he believes about himself. French however, shows us that this person of privilege has been thrown into an identity he’s never contemplated before, and is having a hard time adjusting. Complicating matters further for Toby, he is quickly moved into the environment of the Ivy House. The Ivy House is the family home owned by his uncle Hugo, who is dying of cancer. During the novel, the house is also inhabited by Toby’s cousins Susanna, a wickedly intelligent mother of two, and Leon, a man stuck in perpetual wanderlust. On the surface, Toby’s paranoia is about what role his family played in the central murder. On a deeper level, he struggles with his confusion about what is means to be less than the social ideal. On one side is Toby, questioning over and over again “What is luck, and why on earth should I care?” On the other are French, Leon, and Susanna, asking Toby forcefully “Who put Bella in the Wych Elm? The solution to both only comes when the mystery of Ivy House is solved, and Toby can understand how the questions themselves relate.
The Witch Elm’s resounding strength by far is the strength of tone and atmosphere it creates. When Toby feels warm like a gentle summer day, the reader will as well. When Toby is frightened by circumstances around him, the prose imparts a sense of jittery nervousness. When Toby is confident, we’re confident. Same for when he’s crushed. The melding of reader and character feeling is almost dizzying at times. French adeptly shows off her skill at evoking emotional auras throughout the novel.
The Witch Elm’s most frustrating element, however, comes from dual nature. It at times reads like two separate books – one book consisting of the beginning, and another consisting of the end. Both parts are satisfying alone, but together, feel confusing. For instance, the ending of the novel felt very punishing to its main character, and by extension those who identify with Toby. However, the beginning of the novel seems geared to making anyone who would identify with Toby as comfortable as possible. Overall it seems like a novel that expects its audience to have a character arc as predetermined as any of the characters in the book themselves. The Witch Elm’s two different sections battle one another in a way that does neither section any favors. Bella, in her wych elm, is begging for resolution all while Toby sitting under his own tree aching for understanding. Yet, the novel only makes room for one of them to succeed in their goals.
So, who indeed put Bella in the wych elm? While French posits an answer, she leaves room for you, the reader, to decide upon your own interpretation. You are free to solve the mystery with as much leeway, room, twists and turns and suspense as the main character himself.
You may enjoy this book if you are interested in family mysteries, and family history. You may not enjoy this book if you do not like books that touch upon current social issues, or mystery books that are based on murders.
The Witch Elm trigger warnings include but are not limited to: murder, minor depictions of graphic violence, terminal illnesses (cancer), and discussion of rape, homophobia, disability and physical abuse.
Review by Zoe Grimes