Tana French Is at Her Suspenseful Best in ‘The Witch Elm’

Posted October 7, 2018 5:09 p.m. EDT

The title tree in “The Witch Elm,” Irish writer Tana French’s best and most intricately nuanced novel yet, is a mysterious character in its own right. Stately, 200 years old and burned into the collective memory of the Hennessys, this tree embodies the family’s idea of stability. It anchors a garden so lush that as you sink into this book, you can practically feel tendrils twisting around you.

The tree is technically a wych elm, but don’t look that up. The wych elm has a notoriety that must have given French a kernel of plot inspiration. Big deal. She is in a class by herself as a superb psychological novelist for whom plot is secondary. She is not a crime writer per se; her books just happen to involve deaths and detectives, whose talk and jockeying and gamesmanship she captures perfectly.

The men’s barroom banter in the opening scene of “The Witch Elm” echoes similar talk in French’s heretofore finest novel, “Faithful Place,” though this group of conversationalists is more upscale. This book’s first line, from the narrator, Toby Hennessy, might as well be written in neon: “I’ve always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person.” So we know bad luck lurks in Toby’s future. We also quickly get a sense of his confidence, obtuseness and whiff of arrogance. The Ivy House, home of that elm tree, was at the heart of his cosseted upbringing.

French begins the novel on what will come to be called “that night.” (There is room for two “that night"s in this luxuriantly long book.) Toby is unwinding with his pals Declan and Sean. All three are in their 20s but only one of them — Toby — is seriously on the rise. He has lately had his photo in the social pages. He’s also stepped into a messy situation at the art gallery where he works as a publicist, but his entitlement buffers him, to an astonishing degree, from any real consequences at work. The more one of Toby’s old friends drinks, the more he vents about privilege to Toby’s face.

Toby staggers out, refuses the company of his saintly girlfriend, Melissa, and insists on going home alone. And then comes the thunderbolt that splits his life in two: He is beaten so badly by two home invaders that he incurs severe brain damage and memory loss. He will never have his old confidence or clarity again.

The book whisks him back to the Ivy House through a handy character: old Uncle Hugo, who has medical problems of his own. Hugo is dying of brain cancer, and could badly use some company at the family retreat. Toby is too ashamed of his new frailty to return to his old life. Melissa is too magnificent to abandon him. And soon a new, improvised family of three has taken root at the estate, with many members of the extended family dropping in and out to confuse Toby and jar his memory.

This is where “The Witch Elm” truly begins. At its core is the impaired Toby’s struggle to make sense of his own memory and identity, especially when he begins to suspect — as we have from that first line about luck — that nothing around him can be taken at face value.

We don’t know why the assailants broke into Toby’s place and attacked him so brutally. Death and mystery hover over the book, and French has some serious fun with twisting such conventions of the mystery genre as the locked-room puzzle. The Ivy House’s garden is gated and locked, so the book has a subplot about the disappearance of a key. In the Agatha Christie version of this scenario, there might be a twist or three about when and how the wrong person used the key to gain access to the estate. In “The Witch Elm,” that key unlocks dozens of other questions, each of them revealing about people’s deepest secrets and none with an easy answer.

Toby’s new life reconnects him with Susanna and Leon, two cousins with whom he grew up. They are all the same age and uncomfortably close, having shared a lot of things Toby suddenly isn’t so clear on. But the summer when they were 18-year-old confidants is as vivid in the book as the present day, in which Susanna is a mumsy housewife and Leon a brittle gay man. One of the best scenes has the three cousins engaging in late-night confessions about the worst things each has ever done.

If you believe their revelations, French has a nice bridge she’d like to sell you. Nothing in this book can be trusted, not even Toby’s claims that his brain is untrustworthy. And the stakes are high: This might be the only novel in which a character has ever used “now that I hadn’t killed anyone” as a subordinate clause. That’s no spoiler. There’s a long list of those who could have said it, and it may or may not be true.

French’s intense interest in identity and self-deception might make this a slow-building book for some. But if you read her as carefully as you should, it’s a seductively detailed start in which every bit of dailiness is made to matter. Even Uncle Hugo’s work as a genealogist has its purpose. Toby values the sensory clarity prompted by being in Hugo’s study, where he spent time as a boy. And for reasons that will become obvious, it’s easier to deal with family trees not his own.

French’s pacing goes pedal-to-the-metal for the book’s last section. Get ready for the whiplash brought on by its final twists and turns. Despite the speed, none of the final revelations feel rushed or artificial. And French never loses sight of the idea she voiced in her very first sentence. Luck haunts this story every step of the way.

Publication Notes:

‘The Witch Elm’

By Tana French

509 pages. Viking. $28.