Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Witch Elm: a very short review

Surely I qualify as a Tana French addict.

For one thing I have read every single one of her books, including the most recent The Witch Elm.

For another thing, I can't stop raving about her work to anyone who gives me a chance.

French is best known for her Dublin Murder Squad books, so The Witch Elm represents a bit of a diversion. True, it is still a murder mystery set in Dublin, and Dublin Murder Squad detectives feature prominently, but here they are not the protagonists of the novel.

Instead, our hero is Toby, a sort of slackabout 20-something who has made it this far through life without doing anything meaningful, and who isn't really quite sure why. "I've always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person," says Toby, "I managed to go through life without any of the standard misfortunes you hear about."

Toby isn't really lucky, of course. He is privileged, protected, coddled, and nursed by his cocoon of friends and family and their resources, and somehow he doesn't even notice them all as they are doing so. "Bad things just fall out of your head," says Toby's cousin Susanna, referring to Toby's extraordinarily selective memory.

As French matures as a writer, gone is the lyrical softness of her early novels, which always to me seemed to be swathed in a soft mist. In its place comes a directness and bluntness which is surely more accurate and appropriate to the emotions she is wrestling with in her stories, even if it can be rather a bit more jarring to the reader.

Silence again, and those glances. I could feel them considering, not how much was safe to tell me, but how much I would understand.

"Has there ever been someone," Susanna said, "who treated you like you weren't a person? Not because of anything you'd done; just because of what you were. Someone who did whatever they wanted to you. Anything they felt like." Her eyes on me were unblinking and so bright that for a wild moment I was afraid of her. "And you were totally powerless to do anything about it. If you tried to say anything, everyone thought you were ridiculous and whiny and you should quit making such a fuss because this is normal, this is the way it's supposed to be for someone like you. If you don't like it, you should have been something else."

"Of course there hasn't," Leon said. Something in his voice brought back the kid he had been, scuttling along school corridors, eyes down, huddled under the weight of his bookbag. "Who would ever?"

"If you don't like it, you should have been something else." It's not Burns's poetic "Man's inhumanity to man", but French's hard-knuckled prose is just as accurate, just as effective, just as on target.

I can't say that The Witch Elm is escapist fiction, or summertime reading. As with each one of French's novels, after I read it I found myself spending weeks reflecting, introspecting, decompressing.

But what I can say is that, as soon as French publishes her next book, I'll be first in line at the book store.

No comments:

Post a Comment