Tana French’s latest novel exposes the paradox at the heart of #MeTooReview October 10, 2018
The Witch Elm
by Tana French
Penguin Random House (2018), 528 pages
To look into the eyes of a vulnerable person is to see yourself as you might be. It’s a more harrowing experience than one might readily admit. There is a version of yourself made powerless, status diminished, reliant upon the goodwill of others. One response is empathy: to shore up your reserves of charity and trust, in hopes that others will do the same. Another is denial: If you refuse to believe you could ever be in such a position — perhaps by blaming the frail for their frailty or ascribing their vulnerability to moral failure — then you never have to face such an uncomfortable episode of imagination. You come away disgusted with the weak, but content in the certainty you aren’t among them. - Elizabeth Bruenig
If you have read any of Tana French’s six previous novels, I don’t need to tell you anything about the experience of her books. They specialize in emotionally sophisticated interactions, complex conversations stretching across dozens of pages, slippery and subjective memories, and mysteries with a core of genuine human pain. Her characters live in the contemporary world, employing The Simpsons references, trying not to smoke cigarettes, living with patriarchal oppression. Indeed, gender relations are always at issue in French’s novels, particularly in 2014’s The Secret Place, set in a girls school and including a scene of teenage girls dismissing idiot boys that I read, gleefully, four times in a row.
But the author has sailed well beyond the scope of her previous feminist themes in this year’s French fix, The Witch Elm. It’s long, 500 pages, and despite being French’s first book not partially narrated by members of the Dublin Murder Squad, it’s everything we’ve come to expect from one of our greatest living crime writers. She sets up pins and knocks them down reliably, page after page, mesmerizing the reader. More interestingly, though, The Witch Elm exposes a terrible paradox at the heart of #MeToo. In this way, it’s a book of the moment, despite concerning itself largely with a 10-year-old crime.
This novel focuses on a family: three cousins and multiple aunts and uncles, all orbiting around the Ivy House, a family sanctuary. The narrator and favored son, Toby, moves into the Ivy House to care for his terminally ill uncle, Hugo. His cousins, Susanna and Leon, ask him to do this because of the three of them, he has the most easily disrupted life. He’s on a leave of absence from his public relations job after a brutal home invasion left him brain-injured and addled by post-traumatic stress. Prior to this incident, Toby was lucky: never seriously injured or socially rejected, always able to talk his way out of trouble, beautiful girlfriend, nice friends, no addictions, no quirks of personality that kept him from competence and popularity.
The Witch Elm exposes this kind of charmed life as blissfully, harmfully ignorant. As Toby puts it:
It’s taken me this long to start thinking about what luck can be, how smoothly and deliciously deceptive, how relentlessly twisted and knotted in on its own hidden places, and how lethal.
Or, as Susanna tells Toby, “anything you feel bad about just falls straight out of your head.” In his teenage years, Toby never noticed the stalking and bullying his cousins underwent at the hands of his sadistic friend Dominic. Dominic only showed his fun-bro face to Toby, and Toby accepted it as the whole of Dominic's character. When Dominic’s remains turn up in a wych elm on the grounds of the Ivy House, Toby can think of no reason why anyone would have wanted to murder him. Susanna and Leon try to jog Toby’s memory of Dominic’s cruelty, but even though Toby’s memory is faulty due to his brain injury, it’s unlikely that he would really remember what Dominic did to his cousins, no matter what or how often they might have told him. He insists that he would have acted against Dominic if his cousins had brought the bullying to his attention, but the cousins reply that they did, and Toby minimized and then dismissed their complaints without action. Subsequently, he forgot the whole thing in favor of optimism that the trouble would stop on its own.
In these repeated scenes of confrontation and disbelief, French pinpoints the power and paradox of #MeToo. Prior to the hashtag—to the simultaneous public airing of misogynistic harm done to most of the women in the world—men claim they were unaware of the extent of sexual assault and harassment women suffer on a regular basis. They did not know that nearly every woman alive has a story (as do quite a number of dead women). The ripples of disbelief spread everywhere. Surely not, men argued, white-faced. We would know about it if it was this bad. No, women argued back. We have tried to tell you and you have not listened. So we gave up trying to tell you. Now you are listening. That’s the only difference.
Men’s disbelief comes occasionally from internalized misogyny, but for the most part it comes from the type of ignorant kindheartedness, the type of unnoticed privilege, that is Toby’s central characteristic in The Witch Elm. He did not deliberately disbelieve his cousins when they tried to tell him that Dominic stalked, harassed, and physically harmed them. He got stuck in what I call the lucky loop. Without personal experience that this kind of crap happens constantly to women, and other marginalized populations, the lucky man is bound to disbelieve isolated personal accounts that yes, it does. It can’t be happening, or I would know about it is the sentiment and if I don’t know about it, it can’t be happening. The denial that there is a problem feeds into disbelief, and disbelief feeds into denial, and the whole thing is buried in the part of the mind that stores uncomfortable paradoxes.
A great example of the lucky loop is white disbelief that black people are discriminated against by police. (It’d be more accurate to call the lucky loop the privilege loop, but French’s emphasis on Toby’s luck, and his unconscious belief in and reliance on that luck, is more potent than the humorless reputation of privilege as a concept.) Comprehending, and fully believing, that such prejudice is active in the police force—which is intended to protect us, not to harm us—would probably force a painful adjustment in worldview. We don’t hear about it because we don’t want to hear about it; no one is going to believe it, because it’s too awful to believe. Thus, it doesn’t exist.
Yes, it does, says Black Lives Matter. Yes, it does, says #MeToo. Yes, it does, say Susanna and Leon. In The Witch Elm, Toby is forced to reckon with the lucky loop in which he’s been living his whole life, an adjustment in worldview causing him such pain that the book oozes with grief.
It was always going to be like this. There was no undoing this, no talking my way out, no fixing it or apologizing it away, no smoothing off the sharp edges or planing it down so it could be tucked away into some smaller, manageable box. Instead it would grind me away till I fit around its own immutable shape.
Toby’s luck falters when he is assaulted in his apartment, and throughout the book, he must adjust to being made powerless, status diminished, reliant upon the goodwill of others. In brief: he does not accomplish this adjustment with grace.
I’m still trying to decide whether the fatal end of this novel is a misstep, a huge, cymbal-crashing finish whose drama and stakes are unnecessary in this meaningfully cramped family story, or whether French’s point in concluding as she does is staunchly feminist: this is how men behave when they’re backed into a corner, no matter the circumstances. Perhaps Toby’s fate is an expression, per the Bruenig quote above, of furious denial, of reclaiming the power he believes he deserves. Perhaps, despite everything he has learned about his cousins and his own life, he remains trapped in the lucky loop after all.
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#MeToo, Bullying, Tana French, Misogyny