The Witch Elm
There are many schools of psychology, and a significant thread that connects them all is the acknowledgment of a human tendency to repeat the past. Cognitive Theory explores learned thoughts while Behavioral Theory explores learned behaviors. Systems Theory suggests that if a dynamic or pattern is familiar, it feels more comfortable, so the security of this familiarity perpetuates historical cycles in order to avoid the discomfort of the unknown. Freudian Theory, the most controversial but also the most interesting, proposes that many people are driven by a repetition compulsion – a conscious or unconscious impulse to repeat the most painful or difficult patterns from the past, with a fantasy that we will eventually master the situation and therefore heal long-standing wounds. Skilled therapists may be grounded in any of these theories; in effective therapy, past experiences become a meaningful focus of the therapeutic process.
Tana French’s bestselling suspense novel, The Witch Elm, emphasizes the dynamic relationship between the past and the present. The crux of the plot focuses on what happens if we discover that our past is not what it seems. Toby, the novel’s smug protagonist, is a clever gallery publicist who uses his social media savvy to engage in some significant moral lapses at the office but discovers a way through scandal. Buzzed and carefree, he returns from a night on the town in a drunken haze of privilege, imagining that he is and will remain “a lucky person.” But he is robbed and suffers a beating that leaves him close to death. He awakens in the hospital with injuries from which he may never fully recover.
When he and his inexplicably devoted girlfriend, Melissa, head to Toby’s family’s shared country estate to recuperate and care for Toby’s uncle, Hugo, a skull is discovered in the trunk of an elm tree in the front yard. The police investigation that follows calls memories of Toby’s childhood into question. The detective’s mission parallels Toby’s confusing quest to heal his injuries and summon his childhood memories.
French’s dialogue is as engrossing as it is believable. Her characters are flawed and infuriating. The hospital scenes are as engrossing and the late night rants in the family manse, and her descriptive details come to life, even in death:
I swear, even though I know it can’t be true I swear he smiled at me, that old wonderful smile rich with love; I swear he winked one slitted eye. Then all the sharp intricate peaks on the monitor smoothed out to clean straight lines and my father made a terrible growling sound, but even without any of that I would have known because the air around us had split open and whirled and re-formed itself and there was one less person in the room.
Ultimately, what Toby does not bother to think about matters as much as his deliberate efforts to unearth the truth. And this page-turning suspense thriller functions as a memorable tribute to the meaning and value of understanding the past.