Thursday, March 14, 2019

Review: The Witch Elm by Tana French

The Witch Elm
by Tana French
Release Date: October 9th 2018
2018 Viking
Kindle Edition; 464 Pages
ISBN: 978-0735224636
Genre: Fiction / Mystery
Source: Review copy from publisher

3 / 5 Stars

Toby is a happy-go-lucky charmer who's dodged a scrape at work and is celebrating with friends when the night takes a turn that will change his life: he surprises two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Struggling to recover from his injuries, beginning to understand that he might never be the same man again, he takes refuge at his family's ancestral home to care for his dying uncle Hugo. Then a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden - and as detectives close in, Toby is forced to face the possibility that his past may not be what he has always believed.

My Thoughts
The Witch Elm totally caught me off guard as I didn't really care for it at all; I think the only reason I read it through to the end was because it was a Tana French novel, and I was waiting for it to get better, but it never really did.  It saddens me to say that because I look forward to her novels, for the intricacy of her characters, and for the police procedural work involved, but not a lot of that was evident in this one.  The only reason the rating is three stars is because of her exemplary writing skill, still very much in evidence.

Now why would I think this of a beloved author's book?  For a couple of reasons.  Mainly, the main character was an ass, to put it mildly.  Typically, that doesn't bother me in main characters as they can be complex, flawed, and rather interesting.  Toby, however, was just...meh.  He's just one of those people who walks around convinced he's born under a lucky star, and that bad things shouldn't happen to him just because of who he is.  What this does is make him obnoxious, condescending, and very, very annoying.  Pair that with good looks and you've got the type of guy who thinks the world is just there for him, and owes him something just because of who he is.  What his girlfriend sees in him is beyond me.  Normally, Toby's complete ignorance of what is happening around him would make him interesting, especially when things start to get tough and he has to face reality, but even when that does happen, he takes on this affronted air as if he just can't believe anyone would dare accost him, or how dare they touch the almighty golden Toby.  His flaws don't actually make him interesting in this case, they make him seem petulant and childish.  Too bad, as this was a golden opportunity wasted on the author's part as she certainly has the writing skills to be able to sink her teeth into something like this, and do it well.

I actually preferred Toby's cousins to him and looked forward to their appearance in the story.  Flawed, yes, interesting, yes. annoying, no.  There was so much more meat to their personalities that I liked their stories and wanted to know more about what made them tick and why they had an issue with Toby, other than just wanting to clobber him for who he was, that is.  Whenever things got really interesting though, the author would turn it back to Toby and I would be left deflated and bored.  The author has this way of writing that makes you want to read pages and pages of dialogue, and the way she wove the cousins' disgust and mistrust of Toby throughout their discussions was quite fascinating, probably my favourite parts of the book.  I think she was trying to show that Toby was flawed so you would be sympathetic towards him, but all it did was make me like the cousins even more and detest Toby.  

The story itself was one of the weakest parts however, as the mystery didn't really get going until halfway through the book. I'm not even sure why the event at the beginning happened as it wasn't even necessary to the plot; I kept waiting for the big reveal and nothing happened.  If it was just to show that events could happen to Toby just because he was human and not born under this lucky start, well, it kind of failed on my part as it almost made me shut the book and DNF.  

The Witch Elm is not one of her books I would recommend to others. I get the point of the novel, how our actions, whether we realize it or not, have an effect on everyone around us, sometimes for years, and how people can hold resentment for a long time for something you did.  How you can go blithely along, completely unaware, wrapped up in your world, a kind of narcissistic world.  I think the problem is that it didn't quite succeed in this book.  Toby was not a likeable character, it took too long for the central mystery to appear, with another one throwing confusion along the way, and I really felt like the author kind of lost the main thread/theme of her book.  Would I read another of her books? Yes, but I will stick to procedural ones for now.