50 pages 1 hour read

The Witch Elm

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The Witch Elm (2018) is a psychological crime thriller by best-selling American Irish author Tana French. The story follows Toby Hennessy, who unearths harmful family secrets while salvaging his identity after a traumatic assault. A standalone novel separate from French’s award-winning Dublin Murder Squad series, The Witch Elm appeared on NPR’s list of best books from 2018 and the New York Times’s notable books of 2018.

This guide is based on the 2018 American ebook version published by Viking (Penguin Random House).

Content Warning: This guide discusses death by suicide, sexual assault, and the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which feature in The Witch Elm.

Plot Summary

The Witch Elm follows two unrelated violent crimes. The novel’s protagonist and narrator, Toby Hennessy, is brutally attacked in his Dublin apartment. The incident leaves him with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), aphasia (a language disorder caused by brain damage), memory loss, ptosis (a drooping eyelid), visible scarring on his scalp, and a weakened left side of his body. Before the attack, Toby enjoyed a relative amount of luck and privilege that enhanced his confidence and worldview: He is an attractive, healthy white man from a wealthy family, has a loving girlfriend (Melissa), and enjoys his lucrative, successful job in public relations at an art gallery. However, these factors disappear or dramatically change after the attack, and Toby struggles to feel a sense of normalcy, illuminating How Trauma Influences Identity.

Detectives Gerry Martin and Colm Bannon hesitate to investigate Toby’s assault as a random, opportunistic robbery, believing it is more personal. At the novel’s close, several years after the assault, Martin and Bannon identify Toby’s attacker as artist Dean Colvin. In the months leading up to the home invasion, Toby’s former colleague at the art gallery, Tiernan, discovered Colvin’s art and planned to feature him in a show for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Tiernan creates several pieces of art to fraudulently include in the same show, using the name Gouger to hide his identity. Although Toby discovers Tiernan’s deception months before the show’s opening, he fails to report his colleague to the gallery owner, Richard. Instead, Toby encourages Tiernan to create more art, using Gouger in a successful marketing campaign. However, Tiernan loses his job when Richard uncovers his deceit; Toby holds on to his position after smoothing things over with Richard. Tiernan exacts revenge on Toby by hiring Colvin to rob and assault him.

While the exposition and resolution of the novel venture into the details of Colvin’s assault, the bulk of the narrative focuses on Toby’s extended family and a skeleton found on the ancestral Hennessy family property, Ivy House. Toby and Melissa move in with Toby’s uncle, Hugo Hennessy, at Ivy House after learning Hugo has terminal cancer. Ivy House serves as the family gathering place for Sunday lunch and parties; Toby and his cousins (Susanna Farrell and Leon Hennessy) spent every summer at Ivy House as children. Toby assists Hugo with his genealogy work while providing daily, nonmedical care, and the men relate to each other as they navigate drastic physical and mental changes to their health. When Susanna’s son discovers a human skull in a wych elm tree in the garden at Ivy House, Detective Mike Rafferty begins an investigation into the Hennessy family. The skull belongs to Dominic Ganly, Toby’s friend from adolescence. The police find a garrote made from Toby’s sweatshirt drawstring near Dominic’s remains and believe he died by strangulation. Hugo’s genealogy work and the police investigation demonstrate The Danger of Revealing Harmful Family Secrets.

Realizing he is the prime suspect, Toby endeavors to investigate Dominic’s murder and uncover his killer. He discovers Dominic’s cruel history of bullying his cousin Leon. Toby’s childhood friend, Declan (or Dec), recounts rumors about Dominic sexually assaulting Leon. Toby doesn’t believe the rumors, but Dec convinces him of the story’s credibility; instead of feeling devastated for his cousin, he feels excited in knowing Leon likely killed Dominic. This is one of many instances in which Toby demonstrates How Luck and Privilege Limit Empathy. He also suspects Leon of orchestrating the robbery and attack in his apartment. Against his girlfriend Melissa’s wishes, he confronts Leon and Susanna, accusing Leon of these serious crimes. Susanna plants doubt in Toby’s theories, telling him that his memory loss prevents him from remembering specific details from the weeks leading up to Dominic’s murder. Toby begins to consider the possibility that he did kill Dominic. Furthermore, Melissa ends her relationship with him.

Toby confides in his uncle Hugo, who contacts the police and confesses to murdering Dominic. Hugo experiences a brain hemorrhage while in police custody and dies within a few days. Toby refuses to believe Hugo murdered Dominic and feels guilty for his tarnished reputation. Still thinking he might have killed Dominic, Toby asks Susanna and Leon to share everything they know about his actions leading up to Dominic’s death.

Susanna privately confesses to Toby that she and Leon killed Dominic after he sexually harassed and assaulted her on multiple occasions. Leon agreed to assist Susanna in killing Dominic and recalls her meticulously planned attack with pride. Both cousins express satisfaction over killing Dominic, feeling they made a positive, tangible change in the world. They then call out Toby’s inaction at the time, recalling how he dismissed Susanna when she asked for help.

Later, Detective Rafferty confronts Toby to extract a murder confession; he doesn’t believe Hugo was solely responsible for Dominic’s murder. Rafferty reveals more evidence: anonymous emails sent to Dominic, encouraging him to pursue a girl. Toby remembers sending the emails to Dominic as a teenage prank, resulting from boredom and annoyance with Susanna’s complaints. He finally realizes his culpability in Dominic’s murder. Rafferty and Toby’s conversation escalates into a physical fight, resulting in Rafferty’s death. Toby immediately feels remorse for killing the detective and tries to die by suicide, though Melissa and his mother save him.

Sentenced to two years in a high-security mental health facility, Toby learns to cope with his symptoms of PTSD and dramatic life changes. He closes his narration by reflecting on the relative nature of luck and how he still considers himself lucky, though he now recognizes his luck as his fatal flaw.

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