Note: The following contains spoilers for The Witch Elm.
Tana French, the literary world’s favorite mystery writer (and admittedly, mine), couldn’t have planned a more timely release for a book about the repression of dark memories, sexual assault, and victimhood. It’s almost a bit of sheer dark luck to have The Witch Elm on shelves in America in the immediate aftermath of this country ripping itself in two over whether a man accused of sexual assault ought to be promoted onto the most respected legal body in the country. In this “scary time for men” French’s novel, her first standalone work after six Dublin Murder Squad best-sellers, is an investigation of how entitled men go their whole lives without owning their advantages, and how, when faced with a spectacular implosion of their sense of self, they stutter and stammer to protect the worldview they’ve inhabited.
“I’ve always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person,” begins Toby Hennessy, the dejected, backward-looking narrator “I don’t mean I’m one of those people who pick multi-million-euro lotto numbers on a whim, or show up seconds too late for flights that go on to crash with no survivors. I just mean that I managed to go through life without any of the standard misfortunes you hear about.” Young, “good-looking, in an easy, straightforward way,” and about to trade up jobs in the PR world of Dublin’s art scene, Toby comes from a happy, stable, somewhat moneyed family. He has a delightful little pixie of a girlfriend, Melissa, whom he “craves” when they aren’t together, and he’s just dodged a scrape at work that should have got him sacked.
Except lucky isn’t really the word to describe Toby — lucky is the adjective privileged people use to avoid even a veneer of responsibility for what they do with their blessings. Toby would argue, however, that he’s worked hard to climb the corporate ladder — that his success is deserved, and that it’s his “charm” that has wiggled him out of sticky situations. His charm even, he explains, got his “grass-green” self his job, “when the other woman at the final interview had had years of experience.” It’s set in Ireland, but The Witch Elm is the story of America’s entitled men writ large. (And here it’s worth noting that although she’s lived in Ireland for nearly 30 years, French is American.)
But Toby’s charm is worthless when he startles burglars in his apartment and they smash him on the head with a heavy candlestick, leaving him with a severely addled memory and a left side that has a “dream-like cotton-wool” weakness. Unused to hardship of any variety and suffering under the weight of PTSD, he collapses into a whirling vortex of self-pity. Over the next months, as Toby retreats into the apartment his parents bought him (in which they’ve now installed a panic button) French draws a portrait at odds with itself — a young man lucky enough to be alive, to be loved, to be insured (“I gave myself a mental pat on the back for having good health insurance”), who sees himself as the target of all the universe’s cruelty. “It was a roiling fury and loathing and it was a depth and breadth of loss that I had never imagined,” he explains. Toby hides away, brooding over his lack of confidence, his missing memories, his depleted physical strength, until months later he moves into the rambling family manse, Ivy House, to care for the only family member in worse shape than he is, his dying Uncle Hugo. Which is when the novel’s second mystery cracks open, and Toby Hennessy’s sense of self collapses even further.
Ivy House is meant to revitalize Toby, but after a ghastly discovery in the family’s garden, he learns that the teenage years he remembers as blissful and idyllic were in fact nightmarish for his friends and cousins, with whom he spent long summers and holidays lying about the house. He starts to probe his pitted memory to pin down what he missed or can’t remember, and — most poignantly for readers — struggles to determine whether he enabled, ignored, or put a stop to a vicious string of sexual assaults that are eerily familiar to those described by Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez, and Julie Swetnick. If The Witch Elm were written in the next year, instead of the past one, it would be deemed too on the nose, a ripped-from-the-headlines Law and Order: SVU–style bit of tragedy porn.
It’s particularly clever that French begins with Toby as a victim — he suffers from PTSD, he’s “developed the habit of sleeping balanced perfectly on the edge of the bed,” with his fingers “as close as possible to the [panic] button.” Men have put their hands on Toby and left him bloodied; he might better understand the way that a flash of darkness at a woman’s shoulder could trigger a panic attack or make her wield her keys like domestic weapons. French gives him every possible tool to empathize, but Toby can’t cope with the notion that his past behavior (or lack thereof) has had a catastrophic effect on those around him. “My own life blurred and smeared in front of my eyes,” he says, “my outlines had been scrubbed out of existence … so that I bled away at every margin into the world.” And he cannot, in any capacity, understand why a young woman would endure regular abuse, would keep going to parties where she knew her assailant would smirk at her from across the room.
The ten-page-long description of her torture — that’s the only word that aptly describes it — is unbearably realistic to any woman who’s ever had a man believe she is rightfully his. It begins with a rejected advance, and builds to a terrifying intensity — at one point her assailant tells her, “You’re too ugly to fuck face-to-face. I’m going to do you from behind.” And she never, she explains, tells “A Trusted Adult,” for a simple reason: “I was embarrassed. No one wants to tell her parents how some guy felt her up. And I wasn’t sure whether I was making a big deal out of nothing — he was so casual about it, you know?” Eventually she goes to the police, but they won’t even take a report. After all, she has no evidence.
This is the damning indictment of The Witch Elm. That teen boys groping and teasing and touching and poking and pressing us up against walls and into bedrooms and out of the glow of streetlights is so normalized that it essentially passes for dating. That a teenage girl would think she’s making a big deal out of nothing when a boy slides his fingers into her pants, where they bulge unwanted against seams and buttons. That without concrete evidence —a text, a photo, a gaping, bloody wound on the head— what happened might as well be smoke in the wind. Ten (or 36) years later there’s nothing left but brutal memories and fear in the dark.
Burdened with a story that indicts him as a witness, Toby crumbles into a paranoid, ranting, emotionally hobbled and wallowing mess. From there The Witch Elm lurches even deeper into the ugly abyss that weak men fall into when confronted with their complacency. The truth — that his ignorance set a tragedy in motion — undoes him.
For the majority of it, The Witch Elm had me enraged. Even in my favorite fiction, men were stepping in to steal women’s victimization and wear it as their own. Then I got to the ending, and felt like a small slice of justice had been served.