Book Club Prep: The Witch Elm by Tana French

Our next book club book will be The Witch Elm by Tana French! This latest novel from the greatest mystery writer working today (in my opinion, anyway) rolled onto the market last autumn, so hopefully you’ll be able to get your hands on a library copy by now without too much delay!

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.

A spellbinding standalone from one of the best suspense writers working today, The Witch Elm asks what we become, and what we’re capable of, when we no longer know who we are.

Highlight white text for content warnings: sexual harassment, physical assault, terminal illness, death and dying, suicide, homophobia, ableism, sexism

For those of you looking for hosting ideas, here are some easy snacks and beverages you and your book club compatriots can enjoy while discussing French’s latest work. And for those of you who are looking for something more beyond the book itself, here are some articles and books which either tie into French’s novel or expand upon its themes and content.

Snacks & Drinks:

Tea

Did you know that Ireland drinks more tea per capita than any other country in the world, with the exception of Turkey? (source) And, not surprisingly, Irish people on the internet can become quite proud when it comes to listing their many tea-drinking customs – feel free to google it for yourself, if you’d like!

Lyons and Barry’s are the two leading brands of Irish tea, but if you can’t easily get your hands on those, any milk-and-sugar-friendly black tea would be an acceptable replacement for your book club meeting. (For the less tea-familiar among you, good tea types would be: Irish Breakfast, English Breakfast, Ceylon, Darjeeling, or Assam.)

Irish Cheeses

Most large grocery stores have a few Irish cheeses in their deli section, but you’ll probably find even more, which much greater variety, if you can afford a trip to a fancier grocery store in your area with a dedicated cheese arena. Add some crackers, maybe some dried or fresh fruit and some olives, and you have yourself a fancy cheese tray! For an idea of the range in flavor that Irish farmhouse cheeses have to offer, check out this article.

Irish Soda Bread

Created during the mid-1800’s as a cheap staple for a poor country, soda bread is now a “classic” Irish food. The bread is shaped differently depending on where you are – in the South, the bread is a round loaf with a cross cut into the top, whereas in the North the round loaf is separated into four triangles that are each cooked separately on the griddle. (Most families did not have access to an actual oven, so soda bread was designed to be cooked on a griddle or in a pot over the fire instead.) (source) There are many soda bread recipes available online, so you can peruse and see which one sounds best to you!

Seafood

Smoked salmon is a food of choice in Ireland since prehistoric times, and makes a great addition to a cheese tray or a simple and tasty accompaniment to bread with butter. Shellfish of many kinds are also a much-celebrated facet of modern Irish cuisine. Just make sure to check that the seafood you’re purchasing is sustainable and will not contribute to the serious problem of overfishing – look for the blue MSC logo, or investigate further at Fish Watch, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, or NOAA.

Potatoes

What an iconic tuber for this small country! Depending on how fancy you want to get, potatoes can be prepared any number of ways – baked, roasted, fried, mashed, scalloped, and the list goes on. You can check out 101 beautiful recipes here, or you can buy some frozen french fries at your local grocery store and pop them in the oven. And if you’re even more strapped for time than that, the potato chip aisle awaits you!

Irish Whiskey

Irish whiskeys are a growing industry, and many of them taste quite excellent. (Google for recommendations, or ask around at your local liquor store.) If your pallet isn’t up for the often intense flavors of whiskey, you can try making cocktails with it instead. Again, Google is your friend, but here are some good ideas from the liquor store chain Total Wine.

Further Context:

Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?

The title and synopsis of The Witch Elm will immediately ring bells for any true crime enthusiasts familiar with the enduring mystery first sparked by an unidentified body found in Hagley Woods in Worcestershire, England, in 1943. The article above provides a quick synopsis of the case, from the original find to the various theories that have taken hold over the years since. Although French’s novel thoroughly departs from the original true crime incident, commonality remains in the questions raised regarding the permanence of identity and the impact obscured and altered history can have on our lives.

In The Woods by Tana French

If you enjoyed reading this book, you’ll probably enjoy Tana French’s other novels as well! Her Dublin Murder Squad series begins with In The Woods and continues through an additional five novels as secondary characters from previous books take over as narrators in their own right. French’s writing is fascinated by identity and our perception of the self, but by having a different narrator for each book, she is able to have an original and fascinating take on these themes for each novel, rather than letting the series grow stale with one repeated protagonist.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks

If you’re looking for a better understanding of how neurological conditions can affect the self from a scientific perspective, this book is an excellent introduction. Per the official synopsis: Oliver Sacks’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat tells the stories of individuals afflicted with fantastic perceptual and intellectual aberrations: patients who have lost their memories and with them the greater part of their pasts; who are no longer able to recognize people and common objects; who are stricken with violent tics and grimaces or who shout involuntary obscenities; whose limbs have become alien; who have been dismissed as retarded yet are gifted with uncanny artistic or mathematical talents.

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

Though I haven’t yet had the chance to read this book, this award-winning bestseller is a memoir exploring the author’s sudden and seemingly inexplicable slide into madness, examining her struggle to hang onto her sense of identity and regain her life from before. The parallels between this book and The Witch Elm are, I should think, pretty obvious!

I Know What You Think of Me by Tim Kreider

In The Witch Elm, the narrator Toby struggles not only with his own perception of himself, but also with other people’s perception of him. This excellent and brief article provokes some interesting thoughts about the cost and the reward of letting those around us know us truly.

Before I Go To Sleep by S. J. Watson

A mystery novel and thriller, this book (which I have not yet had the chance to read) features a protagonist afflicted with amnesia, unable to form new memories ever since an accident that happened twenty years prior.

Half Past by Victoria Helen Stone

Another mystery novel and thriller, this book (which, again, I have not yet read) follows a middle-aged woman, Hannah, who, following her divorce and job loss, returns home to take care of her elderly mother who has begun to suffer from dementia. To quote the official synopsis: Her return stirs up the same unnerving sense of disconnect Hannah has felt since childhood—always the odd girl out, the loner outshone by her two older sisters. Hannah knew the feelings of hurt would come back. But she never expected fear. Because when her mother looks into her eyes and whispers, “You’re not my daughter,” Hannah is beginning to believe it’s not just the rambling of a confused woman. It’s the truth.

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