The Witch Elm by Tana French
For most of this book I thought I was reading a sort of awkwardly paced but pleasantly Irish murder mystery and then when I got toward the end I realized it was something else entirely.
It took a long time to get there; in fact, I almost gave up on it at one point. The hardback edition runs just over 500 pages, and the event that forms the jacket-copy premise happens 160 pages in. There’s definitely a slow period even after that where dynamics are brewing, but it doesn’t move the way I would’ve expected from a real mystery. And then, after the main mystery is solved, there’s this whole additional event that goes by disorientingly fast. But I went with it, through these complaints, because this book turned out to be a vicious attack on straight white male privilege.
I realized when I got to the end that the entire book had been set up that way, from the first sentence, to the work snafu that sets the chain of events in motion. In creating Toby, the narrator, French pulled off the thing I’ve always thought was nearly impossible: a character who embodies a trait she wants to criticize, depicted utterly believably, in the first person, without detectable authorial contempt. Toby is deeply oblivious to the desperation sometimes faced by people who don’t share his privilege, and indignant about the fact that he gets excluded from things that he would never stand a chance of understanding. When less privileged people tell him of troubles they faced, he simply can’t grasp why they couldn’t just call the police and everything would be fine. Powerlessness is incomprehensible to him. And it’s utterly believable. In narrating his voice, French never lets her colors bleed through; we only see what she’s done by watching Toby react authentically to the things that happen to him. It would have been so easy for her to make him into a caricature, but she never did. And that’s what was so chilling about it.
I had my minor quibbles. I’m on the fence about a narrator in a mystery who has memory problems and thus doesn’t know whether he himself might be the killer. Gimmick aside, I’m not sure I fully bought those logistics. And there was an incident toward the very end I didn’t quite buy either–but because the overall effect was so powerful, I’ll go along with it.
This book kind of made me want to give it to some privilege-blind types I know and see if they even recognized it. I could see it slipping right by them. And that’s an enormous accomplishment, isn’t it?