Book Review: Tana French’s The Witch Elm

Tana French is an Irish novelist whose crime series featuring the Dublin Murder Squad delves deeply into the psychology of criminals and criminal-finders alike. French has a keen sense of narrative, and her books are satisfying in the way that the late P.D. James was satisfying. Good crime novels tell a story. These books are about real people with complicated lives who get in trouble in entirely believable ways.

Now French has a stand-alone novel, not part of the Dublin Murder Squad series. The new book is The Witch Elm, and it’s a complex story of identity and place — Ivy House, behind which the wych elm that is the crux of the story grew for some 200 years.

I’m early into the book, and no doubt will have more to say about it later. But I’m struck in these beginning pages about the difference between growing up with a sense of place v. not. We moved a ton as kids, all but once in my mother’s home town of Kearny. To give you a sense, when I applied for Peace Corps service I had to list all of my addresses. I was 21 in my senior year of college, and I think I listed 18 places. Before my father died, I had the sense that we were moving to better ourselves. He was handy with wallpaper and paint and minor fix ups, and the new place we moved to was always a little bit nicer than the one before. After he died, our moves became frenetic. I think my mother believed that the next place would be the one to quell her restless unhappiness. Or, like Auntie Mame, Margaret just liked to move around and didn’t have the money to travel. That the frequent moves were disorienting and destabilizing to some degree to each her three daughters registered not a whit.

That’s not the kind of upbringing that creates a strong sense of place.

I found Minga after 40 years because she hadn’t moved more than a few hundred yards from where we’d lived side by side during the Peace Corps years. My friend Phyllis grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania, where her brother still lives and her father lived until his death. My friend Ginny grew up among the Irish Catholic glitterati of Washington D. C., where her father was widely known in public relations and communications circles and her mother wrote a column on family life for The Catholic Standard. Ginny has lived her adult life in D.C. as well.

Those are people with a sense of place.

We all grow up with certain things in our personal tool kit, and other things for which we have to compensate. A sense of place is not something you can build in if you didn’t develop it over time.

I can imagine some ways in which a sense of place might be a burden. And, moving around a lot gave me certain strengths. I can become comfortable almost anywhere, and pretty quickly. I don’t have a huge connection with things, other than my collection of art photographs by people like Diane Arbus, Mary Ellen Mark, Weegee, Vivian Maier. I suppose that not having an attachment to place made it easier to move from the east coast to the Pacific Northwest and build a new life in Seattle.

Just reflecting on an early theme that popped out at me from the book. Are you a person with a sense of place, or not? Glad to hear your experience.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Tana French’s The Witch Elm

  1. We both had a long stretch in Rochester too, even though it was not our birthplace. I like longevity in one location – PA, Rochester, coastal SC – and creating a comfortable home, connecting with my neighbors and the surrounding area, having a favorite grocery store, with a variety entertainment/cultural opportunities to make me happy. I have lived in several other areas – IN for college, plus NYC and Chapel Hill for 5+ years each. Both delightful, but not with longevity. I have traveled a lot, but love having a home base. I guess it’s called having “the comforts of home.”

  2. for Phyllis: I share your love for a home base. San Gabriel Drive was that for me. Living in Sara’s house here in Seattle feels like home too, more so that the apartment. I’m really glad to have neighbors again, a yard, some plantings in front, a place to put pumpkins.

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