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.
Tana French has been a long-time favorite author for my friend Colleen and me. Although her books are always to be found in the mystery section, they are unlike any other mystery book I’ve ever read. In fact, I am often surprised during my many rereads that no one (including the publisher) has ever attempted to switch them over to the so-called “literary fiction” category. However, I am also always quite happy to see her books still ensconced among thrillers and whodunits on my visits to my local bookstore. Her books are an unparalleled example of the craft and skill often to be found on the shelves of genre fiction.
The Witch Elm is a first for French, in that it falls outside of her Dublin Murder Squad series. Having enjoyed our last Tana French book club discussion so much after the release of The Trespasser, Colleen and I were both very excited to read this book with the expectation of another 3-hour discussion to follow. And to our delight, The Witch Elm did not disappoint.
Discussion questions below the cut!
The Witch Elm is the first book Tana French has written that steps outside her Dublin Murder Squad series. In what ways did that choice change the content and themes of French’s writing in this novel? In what ways do you see this novel still connecting to the Dublin Murder Squad series, if at all?
The style of Toby’s narration is somewhat unusual, even for a first-person POV novel. Sentences stutter and stop, flow endlessly from one idea to the next, or jump from thought to thought with only dashes or commas in between. What do you think French was attempting to achieve with this style of writing? Do you think she was successful?
Do you think Toby is an unreliable narrator? Why or why not? Consider whether you think he is being willfully untruthful, and the ways in which any first-person narrator (or even a third-person limited narration) will color the reader’s viewpoint. What defines an unreliable narrator for you as a reader?
In some ways, this book had a slower build than Tana French’s other books, especially since the book does not immediately begin with a murder and therefore an obvious problem that needs to be solved. What are some ways by which French kept narrative momentum? Did you ever feel impatient or frustrated with the route the narrative was taking? Why or why not? If the trick of suspense is to withhold information from the reader and the art of suspense is to force characters into making choices, which of these methods do you French was relying on most: the trick or the art? Explain.
Regarding his work with genealogy and his new clients that reach out to him following DNA analysis, Uncle Hugo says, “They’re afraid that they’re not who they always thought they were, and they want me to find them reassurance. And we both know it might not turn out that way. I’m not the fairy godfather any more; now I’m some dark arbiter, probing through their hidden places to decide their fate.” To which Toby replies, “It’s not that bad. […] I mean, they’re the same people, no matter what you find out.” Uncle Hugo then asks, “It wouldn’t bother you? If you found out tomorrow that you were adopted, say, or that your grandmother was actually the child of some unknown man?” (Ch. 4) What would be your response to Uncle Hugo’s question? Do you think the discovery of a discrepancy in your lineage would make a difference to who you are, or a difference in who you think you are?
Frustrated with his illness, Hugo says, “I’m just sick and tired of being at the mercy of this thing. Having it make all my decisions for me. It’s eating my autonomy as well as my brain, eating me right out of existence in every way, and I don’t like it.” (Ch. 4) Have you ever felt trapped by your own body, whether as the result of illness (like Toby and Hugo) or as the result of facts about yourself which you cannot change (like Leon and Susanna)? If so, how did you try to fight back against that feeling? Did you ever feel successful? Regardless of your answer, do you think having or not having that lived experience impacted your ability to relate to the characters in this book?
Melissa is an unusual character, in that she forms a core part of the cast during the first two-thirds of the book, then disappears for the remainder. What purpose does her character serve in the story? What do her actions and choices tell us about both her and the way in which she sees Toby? Why do you think she leaves Toby after he begins trying to force Leon and Susanna to give him information? Toby believes she leaves because she can deal with the thought of him being a murderer but not the reality of him being aware of the crime he once committed. Do you think Toby is right or was there a different reason Melissa left?
Just before Toby decides that maybe he did, in fact, kill Dominic, he thinks, “… what made me so sure what type of person I was, what I could and couldn’t have done?” (Ch. 9) How much of our personalities do you think are defined by our memories? If you were to lose half your memories overnight, do you think you would be the same person tomorrow that you were today? Are there traits which you believe are ingrained in you, whether or not there are memories there to support them?
When Susanna reacts to Toby’s expression regarding her son’s latest challenging behavior, she says, “I know Zach’s a little bollix sometimes […] but we’ve been working on it. He just needs to get his head round the idea that other people are real too, and he’ll be fine.” (Ch. 9) Do you think Toby sees other people as real—specifically, as existing outside of his own perception? Would your answer to this question change over the course of the book? Explain.
Toby kills Rafferty expecting to be transformed into a sharper, more focused form of himself, the same way he perceives Leon and Susanna to have been changed by killing Dominic. However, the murder doesn’t have the result Toby expects. Do you think murdering Rafferty changed Toby in any way? Why or why not? Consider comparing the method and motive of the two murders (Dominic and Rafferty) to explain your answer.
When Susanna comes to speak with Toby at the mental hospital, she tells him, “The stuff he [Dominic] did to me, the stuff that felt like it was turning me into someone else? It didn’t actually change who I was at all. I was always ruthless. It was just a question of what it would take to bring it out.” (Ch. 13) Toby doesn’t seem to agree with this, but bites back any reply. Do you think Susanna is right or do you think Dominic’s abuse of her did change her into someone else? Explain.
After Leon and Susanna have confessed, Toby says, “When I thought about Susanna and Leon it was, strangely enough, not with horror or condemnation or anger but with envy. They came to my mind drawn in strong indelible black that gave them a kind of glory; Dominic’s death defined them, immutably, not for better or for worse but simply for what they were, and it took my breath away. My own life blurred and smeared in front of my eyes; my outlines had been scrubbed out of existence (and how easily it had been done, how casually, one absent swipe in passing) so that I bled away at every margin into the world.” (Ch. 12) Do you think you are distinct and defined in the manner of Susanna and Leon, or do you think you are easily blurred like Toby? Earlier in the novel, Uncle Hugo suggests, “It takes some great upheaval to crack that shell and force us to discover what might be underneath.” (Ch. 8) Do you agree with Uncle Hugo, or do you think it is possible to know who you are without being pushed to an extreme?
Toby finishes the book by stating that he has to believe he is still a lucky person, because that luck is what defined him as a person—and if that luck is now gone, then who is he? Do you think Toby is right to hold this belief? Or do you think he is, in fact, a different person following the assault in his apartment? Which of these two points of view do you think is the most hopeful?