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The witch elm
2018
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Five 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. Excerpted from The Witch Elm: A Novel by Tana French All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
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  Publishers Weekly Review

Reviewed by Julie Buntin. The Witch Elm is Tana French's first standalone, following five Dublin Murder Squad mysteries. It's as good as the best of those novels, if not better. In theme and atmosphere, it evokes her earliest two books, Into the Woods and The Likeness, using the driving mystery-of course, there's a murder-as a vehicle for asking complex questions about identity and human nature. But in this latest work, privilege is French's subject; more specifically, the relationship between privilege and what we perceive as luck. Who might we become if the privileges we take for granted were suddenly ripped away? Instead of a world-weary detective, our narrator is Toby, an easygoing 20-something who has always taken his wild good fortune as a matter of course. He's attractive, clever, and universally liked. A publicist for a Dublin art gallery, he has a girlfriend so saintly that it takes a while for her to register as a real character (or at least for him to see her that way). Then robbers break into his apartment and beat him so badly that the physical damage permeates every aspect of his life, fundamentally altering his appearance, his gait, and his sense of self. His memory is newly riddled with gaps; his frustration as he attempts to discern what's real, what's remembered, and what's paranoia adds fuel to the plot. While he's in the hospital, his beloved Uncle Hugo, keeper of the Ivy House, a family property that's rendered with French's signature attention to real estate, is diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Toby moves in with him, both to keep him company and because he, too, needs a caretaker. When a human skull turns up in a hollow of a witch elm in the backyard of the Ivy House, the plot revs its engine. Who does the skull belong to? And what does Toby have to do with whoever died in his backyard, or at least who was buried there? In typical French fashion, just when you think you've started to piece it all together, the picture shifts before your eyes. It's a bold move to wait until nearly a third of the way into the book to deploy the body. But what might seem like throat-clearing in another writer's novel is taut and tense in The Witch Elm, thanks to a layered network of subplots and the increasing fragmentation of Toby himself. In many ways, the most interesting question the novel asks is not whodunit; it's whether, and how, Toby will come back together again. Stepping outside the restrictions of the Dublin Murder Squad format suits French. Readers used to the detective's perspective might miss the shop talk, not to mention the pleasure of inhabiting the POV of the smartest character rather than (in this case) the most bewildered. By channeling the story through a narrator who's unfamiliar with the very worst parts of human nature, she's able to put her thematic questions at center stage . She carefully builds Toby up, and then strips every part of him away; the result is a chilling interrogation of privilege and the transformative effects of trauma. Julie Buntin is the author of Marlena, a novel. © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Summary
"Tana French's best and most intricately nuanced novel yet. . . Get ready for the whiplash brought on by its final twists and turns." - The New York Times <br> <br> A brilliant new work of suspense from "the most important crime novelist to emerge in the past 10 years." ( Washington Post ) <br> <br> 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.<br> <br> 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.<br> <br> 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.
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