The Witch Elm

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I'm going to gripe about something I've griped about before. I strongly suspect the book contract Tana French wrote under specified a word count that resulted in (tada!) 509 printed pages.

The problem is that this would have made a pretty good 300 page book.

Don't get me wrong. Ms. French is an excellent writer, and those extra 200 pages-worth of words are pretty decent writing. It's just that they don't add anything. At a certain point they become irritating obstacles to get past in order to make it to page 509.

Don't mind me. I sympathize with writers who need to get to N words, when the story they're telling is only about 60% there.

While Ms. French's previous books have had Dublin cop narrators, this one is narrated by civilian Toby. He's not a particularly likeable character; one of the things that immediately becomes apparent is that he takes ethical shortcuts on the way to a desired goal, but seemingly always gets away with a too-lenient punishment.

Things start going bad for Toby when he interrupts a burglary at his apartment. He gets thrashed to near-death. As it is, he sustains enough damage to earn an extended hospital stay, slur his speech and make his memory spotty.

He has no urgent desire (and maybe no ability) to resume his normal life. But he gets word that his beloved Uncle Hugo is dying from a brain tumor. This causes the extended family to gather at the Ivy House, their ancestral home. A lot of fraught family drama ensues. But then (page 162), one of the family urchins is exploring the titular hollow tree and pulls out … aieee, a human skull!

Well, now you're talking. About time. Who does the skull belong to? And, if it was there via foul play, who done it? There are a lot of suspects. Including Toby himself—remember I said his memory was spotty? He doesn't know.

Things are resolved in ways I only half-saw coming.