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 Let You Go, by Clare Macintosh, is totally silly and totally fun and I listened to it on audiobook and then book an ebook version for the cottage because I can read faster than anyone can read to me, and I wanted to know! what! happens! next!
Oh I get it, it’s plenty flawed with damsels in distress, and deceit, and assumptions about women-and-work. But it’s still… so fun. Like when Patrick-the-vet gets introduced as a character and his blond hair is waving in the wind and sun dappled skin is glowing, you’re just like… romance!
I’d caution ever reading this with expectations to think deeply about anything. And strong warnings about descriptions of domestic violence and the death of children that are difficult and could easily make the book one you’d rather skip.
That said, if you do choose it, I’d hazard a guess you stay up late to finish it because It Has All the Plot! Plot! Plot!
Reading the description on the back of Strangers With the Same Dream, I was skeptical. I felt no immediate urge to read about Zionist settlers in the 1920s and the kibbutz movement. But a little part of me thought, hey, isn’t this what reading fiction is all about? Reading about topics and people and places you find no immediate interest or resonance with? Or might have existing assumptions about? So I let the small part of me take over, and I thought, I like Alison Pick, I’ll put myself in her capable hands and see where this goes.
So glad I did! The novel is beautiful, told with an inventive narration and thoughtful about how it positions the Zionist project through self-conscious reflection from its narrators on the relationship with the Palestines the group is displacing. The story is told in three parts, each narrated from the perspective of a different character recounting the same events. The shift in narration has the effect of inviting the reader to see how – even within the same community with shared politics and ambitions – the truth of the story, the beliefs about motivations and goals, are malleable and personal. Wikipedia let me know there’s a name for this phenomenon – the “Rashomon effect,” which were I a trivia player or better at life, I’d already know about (and you probably do). In any case, tis’ when the same event is told differently by the people who were all there. Underscoring the point I suppose, that if history/fact is contradicted even by those who all shared the same experience, what little doubt is there that those of us encountering the event from a distance – whether geographic or historic – are only ever going to get a partial (both incomplete and biased) version.
I did find the introduction of a ghost in the first chapter, and the recurrence of this ‘character’ distracting and irritating. The ghost of the murdered/suicide character doesn’t offer much to the narrative, instead layering a heavy-handed Doom and Gloom vibe, as well as Aura of Mystery that I found myself all too happy to ignore. And it was easy to do so as the ghost would (seemingly randomly) appear and make some Ominous Statement and then disappear again and I was like who cares.