Truth is there’s darkness lurking. The unmeasured capacity for pain and shame, selflessness, self-preservation, and great voids of unanswerable questions. Or, answers that might be better left alone. People are mysteries, even unto themselves.
I’ve always marveled over that old phrase usually employed with a sheepish or dumbfounded tone: “I lost my temper”. Well, maybe the more truthful thing to say is you found it. Or, the way we tend to justify violent behavior from a person who’s been severely traumatized—cause and effect. Dire inevitable consequences. Or key meets lock? Maybe the violence or some other negative possibility was there all along just beneath the surface of a sunny disposition.
Within the plot and subplots of The Witch Elm Tana French explores this idea of self-knowledge crumbling to bits and the potentially devastating aftermath through Toby. Toby is an educated upper-middle class Caucasian hertero man living in contemporary Ireland who goes from adolescence thru his mid twenties blissfully unaware that being blissfully unaware can cause major damage to those he takes for granted are irrevocably close loved ones. Family matters, family never shakes.
Reviews of the novel in The Guardian and some other prominent magazines (which I will link below) focus on that white male privilege, the gauzy comfy cocoon through which Toby views the world around him for most of his life. Likely the very thing that lends to the terrible sense of betrayal that Toby feels after being nearly beaten to death by burglars.
Yes, betrayal, because after waking in the hospital with major injuries, life-altering injuries, Toby feels betrayed. For the most part he’s always given even the biggest jerks the benefit of the doubt. Willing and able to withdraw from judgment when someone causes him no personal grief or offense is easy to do because no one has really made an effort to do such a thing. And then, for no reason at all, that changes. Complete strangers have attacked him, robbed him, possibly crippled him for life and the impotent rage tears at him. He wakes knowing that something fundamental, something rightfully his is gone now. Taken violently. And he can never get it back.
Struggling though physical pain, paralyzing fear, and terrifying loss of memory, loss of self-assurance … Toby wants to shake feeling like a victim but he can’t. He wants vengeance, retribution. He just wants to be himself. And regardless of the terrible fumbling doubt and gaps in memory, his inner dialogue gives details that pierce, that are plausible, revelatory insight to what horror he’s living.
The narration of this story is an injured stream of consciousness to which the author lends her own distinctly lyrical genius of a voice. And trust me when I say it is precisely that breathtaking lovely lyricism that intensifies the eeriness of Toby’s thoughts, his questions, and insights of his mates and relations that eventually help him understand that he never understood himself at all, much less anyone else.
Despite the gorgeous, gorgeous, language Tana French employs throughout The Witch Elm, the last three chapters get a bit windy. I would have liked to see those three condensed into one so that the ending could’ve packed a bigger punch—in that last page, Toby ties in his opening comments to the story’s inescapable conclusion. It’s that question we all have to ask in the aftermath of frightening self-discovery. The ugly kind, once we’ve bowed down to doubt and anger and loss—without that thing you always believed made you yourself … what are you? Who are you?
Whether the thing was luck or cleverness, optimism, or a flair for the romantic, that one trusted person who brought out your best, inspiration, imagination, athleticism … what if you woke up tomorrow and that thing is gone? Would you still be you?