Book Critique - The Witch Elm

Stars: 2.5 / 5

Recommendation: Part Mystery, Part Thriller, Part Family Drama - all elements that should have made the book an interesting read; yet it bored me, dragged along, frustrated at some places and in the end left me confusing at the direction French took with it. 

The Witch Elm is a stand-alone novel by American-Irish writer, Tana French, published first in October of 2018. It was recognized as New York Times Notable Book of 2018. The plot is set in Ireland. This is my first time reading a book by Tana French. Again it is a loan by a friend (Patty) who thought this would be a good book for me to read. So, here we go, again, with my review after my read. 

Toby Hennessy's life has been an easy going one without any major hiccups, and all planned steps executed smoothly. But one night he wakes up to two burglars who beat him close to death. Now after months of healing, he goes to live with his uncle at the Ivy House, their family home. Little does he know that his stay there would be anything but peaceful and recuperating, digging up old murder and forgotten memories.

The story is written in first-person narration. However, the sentences all are so jumbled up. In the sense that when French is giving a scene, suddenly she goes into a past scene in between the sentences causing a chaos in reader's mind to go back and forth without a thread to follow. 

French being from Irish descent used a lot of words that are more common to Irish English rather than what we use normally. So I had to use a lot of Google's help to figure out them, although a few I could understand based on their usage in the sentences. 

The book started a drag for me, with so much of droning going on and on about Toby, his friends, his girlfriend, cousins and family; and the aftermath of attack on him. Some of the chapters were really boring to read, yet I continued on as my friend did say it gets interesting. And true to her words, it doesn’t get interesting until we get Chapter Five, around 160 pages into the book. I think it is a long wait for a reader to like any book. 

I found Toby, the central character, very selfish and unappreciative of the help his parents were giving him when he was in the hospital. Instead he screams, yells and alienates his mother; has a self pity towards him not recognizing the helping hands that are trying to reach him. Having gone through a very serious health scare myself, I couldn’t have gotten through it without the support of my parents and siblings. I am eternally grateful to them that they were there for me. That is why it was hard to see such selfish nature of Toby in the book and accept the character. 

The more and more the story proceeded, Toby turned out to be someone who is self-involved a lot, not a care or understanding for what the other person was going through, and doesn’t put any effort even to understand. He became hollow, shallow and spineless for me until I reached the last two chapters when French changed him dramatically.

In between all the chaotic way French has given us the plot, she managed to squeeze in some very real social problems and how her characters dealt with them - a gynecologist who took advantage of a pregnant woman; constant harassment by law enforcement without concern for one's health or living; bullying; hazing; sexual harassment; and hatred for someone you don’t understand.

Although in the Acknowledgements section at the end, French did confirm that as of 2018, the laws for pregnant women have changed giving them more freedom now. French is also very liberal with usage of f-bombs. Considering the central plot it didn’t surprise me to see them. 

I have seen authors using several quotes from other authors or movies or elsewhere, and sometimes their own, as the epigraphs. But rarely they give away the gist of the plot. However, the quote that French uses almost gives away the entire plot. Interesting choice. 

I have to be truthful with my review here. I took a long time to finish this book. In fact had put it down in the middle of the reading twice, went to other books and then came back to this just so I don’t like leaving any book unfinished. Not only the first 160 pages were a drone and drag, the ending was also confusing. Somewhere around the third chapter from last I expected French to end the plot, but she continued on and ended rather in a weird way. 

I see the need to give justification to the character, but the one's who needed to get didn’t get but the central protagonist ironically gets a twisted ending. That bothered me a lot. So in the end the only part of the book that made sense for me was from the time we hit page 161 or so and until we reach the second chapter from the last. The rest of the book made for a very dragging read. For now I will shelve Tana French from my reading list and perhaps might pick her up in another interesting book.

Spoiler Alerts:

1. Plot Reveals:

a. Sean is getting married to his long-time girlfriend, Audrey, at Christmas. Declan gets back with his ex-girlfriend, Jenna. 

b. Tiernan goes by Gouger for his art work. 

c. Uncle Hugo is dying of brain tumor.

d. Toby's parents and extended family sing a bunch of songs during their family gathering: She Moved Through the Fair by Charlotte Church; Irish Song titled Isn't it Grand Boys; 

e. The Hennessy family have a taste for Armagnac, much like Cognac, but a French brandy. A quick googling showed a very interesting bottle. Tempting to try. More about the drink here.

f. Toby thinks of planning to propose to Melissa among the Queen Anne's Lace and I wasn’t sure what it was until I looked it up. And I found this sea of them right near my home, although by the time I got a chance to photograph them they are almost at the end.

2. Sub- Plots:

a. French's debut book In The Woods (published in 2007) and it's sequel The Likeness (published in 2008) in the Dublin Murder Squad, were basis for an eight-episode series titled "Dublin Murders". Sarah Phelps wrote the screenplay. The show aired on BBC in October of 2019. 

b. Toby's family and friends: Father Edmund & Mother Lily; Cousin Susanna Hennessy, her husband Thomas "Tom" Farrell & kids, Sallie & Zach; Uncle Oliver & Aunt Miriam, their son Leon; Uncle Phil & Aunt Louis, Susanna's parents; Uncle Hugo Hennessy; Girl Friend, Melissa; Best Friends Sean & Declan "Dec" McGinty; Carsten, Leon's boy friend; 

c. Toby's work contacts: Richard, the owner of the art gallery; Tiernan, guy in charge of exhibitions at the art gallery;

d. Other people we come across: Megan, Melissa's room-mate; Detective Gerry Martin; Detective Colm Bannon; Detective Mike Rafferty; Detective Kerr; 

e. Interesting Media, Books and Movies, author French mentions in the book - Gerald Durrell books; Little Green Apples song by Dean Martin; Roses of Picardy, a WWII British song; The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe; e Tell-Tale Heart by Ed

3. Grammatical / Character / Location / Geographical / Historical / Mythological Errors:

a. On Pg. 6. French mentions that Toby was in paper a couple weeks in society pages, doing PR and marketing for a medium-sized art gallery. And in the very next page when she gives history of how he got the job, it looks like he had been with the current art gallery for five years and is still there. There was no indication that he was doing PR and marketing for another art gallery in the meantime. So why word it as if he was doing PR work for a different gallery than what he was working at?

b. On Pg. 51, Toby meets the two detectives for the first time, and is formally introduced. However, in the subsequent chapters he keeps calling Detective Colm Bannon as "Flashy Suit". We cant attest it to him not remembering the names because he does remember the other detective, Gerry Martin's name very well. So why did French make Toby do this?

c. On Pg. 61, Line 6, shouldn’t it be "…of them had Dublin…"?

d. On Pg. 200, Line 10, shouldn’t it be "…got into mine and Melissa's…"?

e. On Pg. 211, Line 4 from bottom, those are statements, so why did French end them with a question mark? She did the frequently at several places in the book, writing a statement but ending with a question mark. It would have been better if she had phrased them as actual questions.

f. On Pg. 457, Line 5 from bottom, shouldn’t it be "…Mine and Melissa's…"?


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