“One Gets Into the Habit of Being Oneself”

A new Tana French novel broadens her inquiry into the greatest mystery of all: who we are.

Tree in a foggy garden.
Adarsh Kummur/Unsplash

All Tana French’s novels are spooked in one way or another, whether or not her protagonists brush up against the bona fide uncanny. There’s the narrator who can’t remember anything about a mysterious childhood trauma in In the Woods; the narrator who has defined his adult self around a betrayal that, he learns in Faithful Place, may never have occurred; the narrator who somehow succeeds at impersonating a woman who was impersonating her in The Likeness. So many narrators, so many I’s who are haunted not by ghosts but by versions of themselves, denied or forgotten. They may solve crimes like any detective—up to now, each has worked with the Dublin Murder Squad—but their true fictional predecessor is the narrator of Henry James’ great ghost story, “The Jolly Corner,” who fled his capitalist clan in New York for a cultured life in Europe, only, when he returns to his childhood home, to be haunted by the specter of the man he would have been if he had chosen a different path.

The Witch Elm book cover.

French’s most recent novel, The Witch Elm, however, is not just spooked but spooky. It arrives at precisely the moment when many of its readers will be wondering about the inner lives of men much like her narrator, Toby Hennessy; its timeliness alone is unsettling. The son of affluent Dublin professionals, Toby is “good-looking in an easy, straight-forward way that didn’t require much thought from anyone concerned.” He has an interesting job in PR and an angelic girlfriend, Melissa. In school, he was one of the “cool kids,” popular with both boys and girls, and he spent vacations bunking with his two cousins, Susanna and Leon, in their bachelor uncle’s rambling old house, doing pretty much whatever they pleased. In the novel’s first scene, Toby, out for a night of drinking with two of his buddies, is pressed to explain how he glides through life without ever suffering much in the way of consequences for his actions. “Because I’m a charmer,” he suggests, and he has a point; he’s always been able to talk his way out of scrapes. But his working-class pal disagrees: it’s because, he insists, “you’re a lucky little prick.”

That night, Toby is awakened by burglars who beat him within an inch of his life. The first third or so of The Witch Elm recounts Toby’s horror and rage at what the attack has done to both his body and mind. His eyelid droops, his left leg drags, his speech slurs, and worst of all, his mind has grown foggy. He can’t handle too much commotion, can’t remember chunks of his past. Terror assaults him at random moments, and his temper flares over nothing. He finds these symptoms “glaringly, repellently wrong … obscenities that should never have been allowed to exist,” all of it “drawing me farther and farther from that guy whom I had every right to be and who was gone for good.” His luck has finally failed him and he faces a future in which something catastrophically unfair could happen at any moment—a condition that the vast majority of humanity knows all too well.

Tana French.
Tana French. Jessica Ryan

Whether or not Toby’s correct about the seriousness or permanence of his condition, he’s the only member of his extended family at loose ends when that bachelor uncle, Hugo, is diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. Toby and Melissa move into the beloved “Ivy House” to look after Hugo, and French, as she did in The Likeness, potently invokes their domestic idyll: a handful of intimates in a gracious if shabby house, cooking meals, reading books, playing cards, going through old books and papers (Hugo is a genealogist) by the fire. Of course it’s too good to last.

Through much of this first part of the novel, it seems as if the burglary and Toby’s inability to accept the idea of himself as a victim will drive the story. One of several manipulative, smooth-talking detectives in the book—usurpers of Toby’s lost eloquence—suggests that the burglary might have been merely a pretext for the attack itself, but Toby lacks the will to pursue this suspicion. Things seem to be moving slowly. Then, during a family gathering, the plot pivots. Toby’s nephew makes a ghoulish discovery (apparently based on a real-life mystery) in the vast backyard: a human skull stuffed down inside the hollow tree that gives the novel its title. The corpse turns out to be someone who went to school with Toby and his cousins: a rugby player, a regular guy who hung around in Toby’s crowd but whom, he insists, he didn’t really know, a boy everyone assumed had died by suicide by jumping into the sea.

The rest of The Witch Elm unfolds around the question of who killed this boy, but the real victim, as Toby sees it, is Toby himself, or rather the version of him that existed before the burglary. Perhaps the two crimes are connected; perhaps Toby is the real target? This idea revives his sense of agency, and he decides to investigate. But as Toby tries to decipher his own past, stories he’s never heard before come out. Susanna tells him about the cunning revenge she sought on a sadistic OB-GYN. “Why didn’t you just file an actual complaint?” Toby asks, and to his astonishment, both of his cousins laugh in his face. “To a board of his mates?” Susanna scoffs. “He’d have said I was a hysterical woman making stuff up, end of story.” From his buddies he learns that his dim memories of the dead boy teasing Leon, who is gay, are mere intimations of the “dedicated nastiness” of what really went on. “I had always taken it for granted that Dominic was a regular decent guy,” Toby thinks, “but when I got right down to it I wasn’t sure why.” Underneath the blithe, Toby-positive, generally upbeat Dublin he once inhabited, he discovers a seething, unstable morass of injustice and cruelty. It is a Dublin that French’s other characters—especially Antoinette Conway, the biracial narrator of 2016’s The Trespasserknow all too well.

Toby’s awakening parallels the experiences of many men like him in the age of #MeToo: guys previously oblivious to the mistreatment going on all around them because they haven’t witnessed it or been its target. Surely, Toby, thinks over and over, things can’t have been as bad as all that. And over and over, he’s proven wrong. Furthermore, his own impairment makes him uncertain just how much of a “decent guy” he was himself. Did he protect his cousins from the victim, and if so, how far was his old self willing to go?

Like all of French’s novels, The Witch Elm can be swooningly evocative: “Voices, clear as robins’, making me jump. There were children playing, down at the bottom of the garden: one swooping crazy patterns on a rope swing, flicking in and out of existence as it arced from shadow to light and back again, one rising out of the long grass with hands held high and wide to scatter something.” But this book is less dreamy than her earlier work. Initially, French’s novels stood out because unlike most crime fiction, they seemed uninterested in depicting a particular social world, like Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles or Sara Paretsky’s Chicago. She has always told stories that hinge on what her narrators can’t know, but her first books were more preoccupied with what no one can ever know, the eternal territory just beyond the blurred edges of the rational. Then, with 2012’s Broken Harbour, French incorporated a feature of recent Irish history—“ghost estates,” housing developments built during the economic bubble of the 2000s and semiabandoned after the 2008 crash—into a drama of mental illness and marital despair. In The Trespasser, Antoinette must sort out who among her colleagues on the Dublin Murder Squad may be out to get her because of her identity or the housing project she grew up in—and whose animus has other motives. The lack of solid ground is maddening, but eventually she can and does find her footing.

The Witch Elm makes a companion piece to The Trespasser, a story more about social issues than unknowable verities, and this time around told from the other side of privilege. Toby behaves like a child, throwing tantrums when his injuries cause the loss of advantages he’d taken so much for granted that he didn’t even realize they were advantages. It might have been easier to sympathize with him before watching Brett Kavanaugh pitch a similar fit on national television, but many of us born into kinds of privilege, if we’re honest with ourselves, respond with denial and anger when faced with such a loss. Although he’s the first of French’s protagonists who’s not a cop, Toby becomes a genuine detective, learning for the first time how the world really works. In French’s most ingenious twist, she makes his mounting paranoia about the motive behind his attack into a bizarre form of empowerment:

If they had come after me for something I’d done or something I’d had, then I wasn’t just roadkill, not just some object to be mown down because it happened to be in their way: I was real, a person; I had been the crucial factor at the heart of the whole thing, rather than a meaningless irrelevance to be ignored, tossed aside. And if I was a person within all this, then I could do something about it.

Finding a connection between the mystery of the corpse in the hollow tree and the attack, Toby believes, will turn him from collateral damage back into a protagonist. He seeks not just the truth but a different, better, more familiar version of the story he tells himself about his life, a version in which he has some control and in which he plays the central role. Crime novels often rewrite the story of what happened over and over again, switching out potential culprits and motives until the solution solidifies, but they rarely leave the identity of the hero up for grabs. When the hero is a detective, he typically stands outside the crime itself, concerned only with the quest to find out who’s responsible. When Toby learns that one of the police detectives assigned to the murder case has used him to flush out another suspect, he realizes, “I hadn’t even been a person, only a convenient thing that he could nudge carefully into whatever position suited his strategy.” The detectives who narrate French’s other novels often treat civilians this way, but with each book in the Dublin Murder Squad series, the narrator’s detachment and power are overthrown by a pivotal case. “One gets into the habit of being oneself” is how Hugo, facing terminal cancer, puts it. “It takes some great upheaval to crack that shell and force us to discover what else might be underneath.”

That’s as close as any character of French’s has come to stating the author’s own fictional method. And even if Toby isn’t on the Dublin Murder Squad, the events in The Witch Elm spur his great, transformative upheaval. The discovery they force on him revolves around one question: Whose story is this? By the time French is done retooling the mystery form—it seems there’s nothing she can’t make it do, no purpose she can’t make it serve—the answer is clear: hers and hers alone.

The Witch Elm by Tana French. Viking.

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