Folks. Do not read The Witch Elm. Tana French is great and writes wonderful mystery novels that are giant and delightful, but this is not one of them. Though most review sites disagree with me, so I’m probably wrong or just irritable.
Toby, our protagonist, is super obnoxious. He’s entirely self-absorbed, petulant and unaware of how spoiled his is by everyone around him. He uses his girlfriend, Melissa, in ways that the novel doesn’t seem to be aware of, making her self-sacrifice some kind of example of how women are meant to be when their partners are down trodden. Melissa is cast against Toby’s cousin, Susanna, who is some Gorgon-like revenge-monster, making the alternative vision of femininity one of calculated destruction. Even while Susanna is a maternal figure, ending up with her husband because she couldn’t figure out another option, and mostly seeming bored by her children (a common trope when trying to be edgy and counter the helicopter parent).
I suppose the book is supposed to be about understanding who we are and what we are capable of when pressed by circumstance or when the culture around us doesn’t take our concerns and experiences seriously. There’s probably something meritorious in the exploration of that theme, but honest to god, the book PLODS through these questions, ever so slowly reeling out the circumstances of the murder, the connections among characters and their pasts, supposedly building suspense and adding character complexity, but really just irritating me as I didn’t see the point to long digressions about how much wine there was to be had. Which isn’t to say I want all books to be pot boilers. Honestly, I appreciated that Toby’s uncle was a genealogist, a cute way of getting the reader to think about how our inheritance, too, shapes who we think we are and what we think we should be like as people. There were other clever approaches to the thematic question, but they all kept getting blocked for me by how utterly boring the whole thing was. This question of are we born lucky. Do we control our fate. How are we constrained by gender and sexuality. What do we owe friendship and experience. How does memory contribute to our sense of self and identity. Such great questions. Just so… dull in execution.
I did a lot of reading this summer. The bulk of that reading was Louise Penny novels, and so rather than write one post after the other about Inspector Gamache and descriptions of Quebecois cheese, I’m writing this one post, and it’s fine, because the novels are all the same: a pleasant romp through a picturesque Quebec countryside with characters that make you hope for a better world, even while murder abounds and threats of Darkness loom. I also read a lot of recipe books – many featuring the Instant Pot – of which I will not bore you.
I read The Murder Stone, A Great Reckoning and Glass Houses. My mum rightly pointed out that I’ve done myself a disservice in reading out of order, but let’s be clear that I’m not likely to ever go back and read the others, so finding out that one of the detectives has a drug problem after he’s been to NA and gotten married to Gamache’s daughter hardly ruins the thread for future reading.
So right. If you’ve not encountered Louise Penny here’s the thrust: her novels win heaps of awards. People love them. There are organized bus tours to the town where Penny lives so that people can visit the cafe featured in the novel. They’re incredibly enjoyable while you’re reading them, something entirely comforting like so many wool sweaters and mugs of tea. Inspector Gamache has cult followings who want to know where he ‘actually’ lives (my beliefs about Gilbert Blythe notwithstanding, fictional characters only live in the mind).
So what’s the deal? My guess is that people (and me while I’m reading them) like the security of a man who is kind and who exemplifies the tropes of a gentlemen-masculinity that are all laughable in reality. We want to believe that men can be kind, brave and stand up for principles and values amid a world of corruption, greed, lust and those other sins. Despite All the Evidence to the contrary, and more importantly, despite the reality that no one ever needed men to be the bastions of honour in the first place, Gamache is an irresistible character because of these qualities. We swoon at the idea of a kind and noble man who occupies a place of power because there are so few examples in reality.
I’m not advancing a novel argument here. I’m sure anyone reading the books would come to the same conclusion. That it’s as much the attraction to Gamache and his pastoral perfect life as it is the mystery around the murder that keeps us reading. We want to be close to a life of comfortable chairs, exquisite food (though the descriptions of food are something distracting – like I have to get up and make bread and cheese before I can keep reading) and totalizing romance because such a place and such people are all but impossible to find in the world we occupy. Utter wish fulfillment.
So it’s something of a rude awakening to come back to 2019 and recall the moment we are in. The responsibilities of being flawed after spending so many hours with the flawless is taxing. It almost makes me want to read non-fiction. Almost.
I read a book in a day! I read a book in a day! Granted I’m on holiday, and there are no distractions and all the coffee, and this was a particularly compelling book. But putting those points aside, it’s still worth celebrating: I read a book in a day! It’s been so long.
ANYWAY. You’d likely read this one in a couple of sittings, too. Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things gets described on the book jacket as ‘cerebral thriller’ and ‘dark twisting suspense’ and ‘horror.’ I’m not sure what a ‘cerebral’ thriller is – I guess there’s very little actual blood in this book? or most of the suspense is achieved by confusing narration and an aggressive present tense. I was feeling edgy while I was reading it. Doesn’t help that, S., on learning it was a ‘thriller’ decided to make whooshing whistling noises and occasional leaps from behind doors. #charming
The book has two ‘modes’ I’d say: one, the hyper-present tense description of a road trip with our unnamed female narrator and her boyfriend Jake, to visit Jake’s parents; two, these stilted strange conversations between the two characters (and then the characters and the parents and some other assorted supporting roles) that stray between the philosophical and the menacing. Most of the questioning centres around whether and how we can navigate the world alone – that is, what is lost/gained by eschewing relationships, or not being able to be in relation-to: what do we need from one another? what are the limits of self-sufficiency? Sometimes these questions are explored head-on in a bizzare-wouldn’t-likely-happen car conversations between the two, and then the questions also get explored in these strange little stories the two tell one another from childhood where extended metaphors are meant to do some kind of instruction on the same theme.
At its best there is a propulsive uncertainty about what will happen to our protagonist. At its worst I didn’t care enough about her – or the snow storm (which read as if someone had said ‘don’t forget setting! and pathetic fallacy!’) or her headaches or the Caller – to be invested in whether everything works out or whether things will be… ended.
Anyway. I’m curious if you’ve read it, what you make of the ending. And if you haven’t, I’m not convinced I’d recommend it. Unless you like ‘cerebral thrillers’ which – if the cover is to be believed – this is of that genre. Not like it was bad, just that there were too many things that irritated me. But still. I read a book in a day!