“Tana French’s best and most intricately nuanced novel yet.” —The New York Times
An “extraordinary” (Stephen King) and “mesmerizing” (LA Times) new standalone novel from the master of crime and suspense and author of the forthcoming novel The Searcher.
From the writer who “inspires cultic devotion in readers” (The New Yorker) and has been called “incandescent” by Stephen King, “absolutely mesmerizing” by Gillian Flynn, and “unputdownable” (People) comes a gripping new novel that turns a crime story inside out.
Toby is a happy-go-lucky charmer who’s dodged a scrape at work and is celebrating with friends when the night takes a turn that will change his life—he surprises two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Struggling to recover from his injuries, beginning to understand that he might never be the same man again, he takes refuge at his family’s ancestral home to care for his dying uncle Hugo. Then a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden—and as detectives close in, Toby is forced to face the possibility that his past may not be what he has always believed.
A spellbinding standalone from one of the best suspense writers working today, The Witch Elm asks what we become, and what we’re capable of, when we no longer know who we are.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
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Susanna swooped Sallie onto her hip, grabbed Zach’s arm in the same movement and hustled the pair of them back up the garden, talking firm reassuring bullshit all the way. Sallie was still screaming, the sound jolting with Susanna’s footsteps; Zach had switched to yelling wildly, lunging at the end of Susanna’s arm to get back to us. When the kitchen door slammed behind them, the silence came down over the garden thick as volcanic ash.
The skull lay on its side in the grass, between the camomile patch and the shadow of the wych elm. One of the eyeholes was plugged with a clot of dark dirt and small pale curling roots; the lower jaw gaped in a skewed, impossible howl. Clumps of something brown and matted, hair or moss, clung to the bone.
The four of us stood there in a semicircle, as if we were gathered for some incomprehensible initiation ceremony, waiting for a signal to tell us how to begin. Around our feet the grass was long and wet, bowed under the weight of the morning’s rain.
“That’s,” I said, “that looks human.”
“It’s fake,” Tom said. “Some Halloween thing—”
Melissa said, “I don’t think it’s fake.” I put my arm around her. She brought up a hand to take mine, but absently: all her focus was on the thing.“
Our neighbors put a skeleton out,” Tom said. “Last year. It looked totally real.”
“I don’t think it’s fake.”
None of us moved closer.
“How would a fake skull get in here?” I asked.
“Teenagers messing around,” Tom said. “Throwing it over the wall, orout of a window. How would a real skull get in here?”
“It could be old,” Melissa said. “Hundreds of years, even thousands.And Zach and Sallie dug it up. Or a fox did.”
“It’s fake as fuck,” Leon said. His voice was high and tight and angry; the thing had scared the shit out of him. “And it’s not funny. It could have given someone a heart attack. Stick it in the bin, before Hugo sees it. Get ashovel out of the shed; I’m not touching it.”
Tom took three swift paces forwards, went down on one knee by the thing and leaned in close. He straightened up fast, with a sharp hiss of in‑breath.
“OK,” he said. “I think it’s real.”
“Fuck’s sake,” Leon said, jerking his head upwards. “There’s no way, like literally no possible—”
“Take a look.”
Leon didn’t move. Tom stepped back, wiping his hands on his trousers as if he had touched it.
The run down the garden had left my scar throbbing, a tiny pointed hammer knocking my vision off-kilter with every blow. It seemed to me that the best thing we could do was stay perfectly still, all of us, wait till something came flapping down to carry this back to whatever seething otherworld had discharged it at our feet; that if any of us shifted a foot, took a breath, that chance would be lost and some dreadful and unstoppable train of events would be set in motion.
“Let me see,” Hugo said quietly, behind us. All of us jumped.
He moved between us, his stick crunching rhythmically into the grass,and leaned over to look.
“Ah,” he said. “Yes. Zach was right.”
“Hugo,” I said. He seemed like salvation, the one person in the world who would know how to undo this so we could all go back inside and talk about the house some more. “What do we do?”
He turned his head to look at me over his shoulder, pushing up his glasses with a knuckle. “We call the Guards, of course,” he said gently.
“I’ll do it in a moment. I just wanted to see for myself.”
“But,” Leon said, and stopped. Hugo’s eyes rested on him for a moment, mild and expressionless, before he bent again over the skull.
I was expecting detectives, but they were uniformed Guards: two big thick-neckedblank-faced guys about my age, alike enough that they could have been brothers, both of them with Midlands accents and yellow hi‑vis vests and the kind of meticulous politeness that everyone understands is conditional. They arrived fast, but once they were there they didn’t seem particularly excited about the whole thing. “Could be an animal skull,” said the bigger one, following Melissa and me down the hall. “Or old remains, maybe. Archaeology, like.”
“You did the right thing calling us, either way,” said the other guy. “Better safe than sorry.”
Hugo and Leon and Tom were still in the garden, standing well back.“Now,” said the bigger guy, nodding to them, “let’s have a look at this,” and he and his mate squatted on their hunkers beside the skull, trousers stretching across their thick thighs. I saw the moment when their eyes met.
The big one took a pen out of his pocket and inserted it into the empty eyehole, carefully tilting the skull to one side and the other, examining every angle. Then he used the pen to hook back the long grass from thejaw, leaning in to inspect the teeth. Leon was gnawing ferociously on a thumbnail.
When the cop looked up his face was even blanker. “Where was this found?” he asked.
“My great-nephewfound it,” Hugo said. Of all of us, he was the calmest; Melissa had her arms wrapped tightly around her waist, Leon was practically jigging with tension, and even Tom was white and stunned-looking, hair standing up like he’d been running his hands through it. “In a hollow tree, he says. I assume it was this one here, but I don’t know for certain.”
All of us looked up at the wych elm. It was one of the biggest trees in the garden, and the best for climbing: a great misshapen gray-brownbole, maybe five feet across, lumpy with rough bosses that made perfect handholds and footholds to the point where, seven or eight feet up, it split into thick branches heavy with huge green leaves. It was the same one I’d broken my ankle jumping out of, when I was a kid; with a horrible leap of my skin I realized that this thing could have been in there the whole time, I could have been just inches away from it.
The big cop glanced at his mate, who straightened up and, with surprising agility, hauled himself up the tree trunk. He braced his feet and hungon to a branch with one hand while he pulled a slim pen-shapedtorch from his pocket; shone it into the split of the trunk; pointed it this way and that,peering, mouth hanging open. Finally he thumped down onto the grass with a grunt and gave the big cop a brief nod.
“Where’s your great-nephewnow?” the big cop asked.
“In the house,” Hugo said, “with his mother and his sister. His sister was with him when he found it.”
“Right,” the cop said. He stood up, putting his pen away. His face, tilted to the sky, was distant; with a small shock I realized he was thrilled. “Let’s go have a quick word with them. Can you all come with me, please?” And to his mate: “Get onto the Ds and the Bureau.
”The mate nodded. As we trooped into the house, I glanced over my shoulder one last time: the cop, feet stolidly apart, swiping and jabbing athis phone; the wych elm, vast and luxuriant in its full summer whirl of green; and on the ground between them the small brown shape, barely visible among the daisies and the long grass.
Reading Group Guide
1. The novel opens and closes with Toby telling the reader that he considers himself a lucky person. Do you agree that he is lucky? When he says his luck is part of who he is, what do you think he means?
2. The novel begins with Toby getting caught covering for his coworker Tiernan, who is pretending to be an underprivileged teen artist. Toby is relieved at having dodged serious consequences, and doesn’t think his lie was particularly important. How did you feel when you first encountered Toby at the beginning of the novel? As the story progressed, did he absorb the significance of his lie?
3. Rather than focusing purely on who committed the crime, much of The Witch Elm examines how many people’s actions contributed to Dominic’s death. When you finished the novel, how did you feel about these questions of culpability? Did you see Toby as a victim, an accessory, or something more complicated?
4. For most of the novel, Toby stands by his belief that he’s a good person. But then Susanna and Leon tell him about their struggles with Dominic in high school, and about how Toby failed to help them. Did their stories change your opinion of Toby? Do you agree with Susanna and Leon that his obliviousness carried a certain amount of culpability?
5. Melissa sticks by Toby throughout most of the investigation, and only leaves after the drunken evening when Toby tries to trick Savannah and Leon into confessing. In your opinion, what about that conversation was the final straw for her?
6. Throughout the novel, Toby’s uncle Hugo is dying of brain cancer. How does Hugo’s deterioration fit thematically with Toby’s own struggles with his mind?
7. Once the string from Toby’s hoodie is found inside of the tree, he becomes afraid that he was involved in Dominic’s death. Why do you think he suspects himself so quickly?
8. After the attack in his apartment, Toby notices that his mental capacities are impaired. He believes himself to be unreliable. How reliable a narrator did you find Toby? How did that affect the novel?
9. While Toby repeats how much he loves Melissa, he often hides things from her, including his physical and mental health problems and his fears about his role in Dominic’s murder. Why do you think he does not tell her the full truth? Is he protecting her, protecting himself, or underestimating her?
10. Susanna states that Dominic’s harassment drove her to murder. Do you believe her reasoning? Do you have sympathy for Susanna?
11. Hugo turns himself in for Dominic’s murder. Both Toby and Rafferty think Hugo was protecting Toby. Susanna believes Hugo was oblivious to her actions during the summer Dominic was killed. Do you think Hugo knew more than he let on? Was he protecting Toby, or Susanna and Leon?
12. This novel is set in and around Dublin. How does the Irish setting contribute to the novel? Would the characters have different choices to make if the novel were set in America?