Uncertain Existences: Crime and Identity in Tana French’s “The Witch Elm”

By Kathryn Hendrickson

“telling stories about the past, our past, is a key moment in the making of our selves. To the extent that memory provides their raw material, such narratives of identity are shaped as much by what is left out of the account – whether forgotten or repressed – as by what is actually told. Secrets haunt our memory-stories, giving them pattern and shape” (Kuhn 231). 

Crime fiction narrates inquests into the past, interrogations of place and memory undertaken in order to construct narratives of history—stories about what took place, who was involved, and why. The protagonist, most frequently a detective, exhumes evidence and analyses it in order to construct a chain of causality that attempts to uncover the truth about the present by re-examining the knowledge of the past. This epistemological orientation of the genre amplifies its ability, as popular literature, to provide cultural reflection. The genre’s focus on ways of knowing emphasises the processes of interpretation, inevitably mired in cultural discourses and frameworks of knowledge, as caught up in the ways we understand the world. Lee Horsley further asserts that, beyond reflection, crime fiction serves as an instrument of cultural critique for “writers who have wanted to subvert the conservative assumptions and practices of their society […] [since] the genre as a whole interrogates the collective guilts that society conceals under what looks like an orderly surface” (287). For the story to be told, a crime must be committed; this fictional genre relies on, for its existence, the violent and traumatic disruption of societal norms, followed by attempts to reconstitute into a coherent narrative the scattered and incomplete memories of the past. In a sense, the crime genre functions as a mode through which cultural memories become represented, interpolated, and absorbed within narratives. 

In the 1990s, Ireland entered a period of high economic growth, known as the Celtic Tiger, brought about by courting foreign direct investments alongside embracing deregulation and free market principles. The boom economy led to high social and material aspirations, and an accompanying bubble in the property market. The global financial crash of 2008 impacted Ireland significantly, plunging the country into a severe recession from which it has yet to completely recover. Arguing that the shifting economic changes of the Celtic Tiger created the social conditions necessary for Ireland to establish its own rich crime fiction tradition, Fintan O’Toole declared that Irish crime fiction is “arguably the nearest thing we have to realistic literature adequate to capturing the nature of contemporary society” (n.p). Certainly, Irish crime fiction has seen high gains in popularity and critical attention over the course of the twenty-first century, with writers such as Jane Casey, Liz Nugent, Julie Parsons, Louise Phillips, and Tana French earning international acclaim.

Tana French, one of the most well-known contemporary Irish crime writers, leverages the traditional concerns of the genre—the use of memory, the direct effects of the past on the present—to challenge expectations of certainty and investigative resolution. Rather than composing narratives of perfect reconstruction, which identify and condemn the criminals, French highlights the ways in which any narrative fails to provide the full story of what really happened. French’s inaugural novel In the Woods (2007) won multiple international awards and her subsequent books, most of which form the popular Dublin Murder Squad series, continue to be well-received. Her work is known for its complex characterisations and realistic representations of contemporary Ireland. French has stated that she wants her writing to be “a point of exploration for a society’s deepest fears [ …] things that it hasn’t assimilated” (Coughlan 336). 

With the collapse of its economy, Ireland underwent a culturally traumatizing event that calls for exploration. Along with that trauma came the search for answers, for an explanation of what happened and who was to blame. In her first novel outside of the Dublin Murder Squad series, The Witch Elm (2018), French abandons the perspective of the official detective and engages with the concerns of the post-Celtic Tiger era. Rather than narrating an official investigation and reconstruction of the past, she filters the events of the book through the circumscribed perspective of her narrator, Toby Hennessy, a PR manager whose life is disrupted by the discovery of a skeleton in the backyard of the Ivy House, the house his family has owned for generations. Land and home, historically, offer a sense of belonging and permanence. During the Celtic Tiger, construction and lending boomed, and investing in home ownership was touted as wise economic practice, an intelligent investment in an inevitably bright future. When the real estate bubble burst in 2008, hundreds of ghost estates, unoccupied and incomplete housing developments, were left scattered across the country. The disruption of Toby’s ancestral home echoes Ireland’s loss of the kind of economic security implied by home ownership; the cultural ideals of hearth and home are destabilised and no longer offer safety. Situating Toby’s perspective, fed by traumatised and warped memories, at the authoritative centre of the narrative emphasises the indelible impressions history presses onto the present, while simultaneously undermining faith in any single reconstruction of the past.

Toby’s self-interest shapes the narrative from the outset; he chooses to begin with his own traumatic experience, “aware that everyone else involved would take issue with my choice” (2), inextricably binding the larger stories being told to his own. He reflects on the night he woke to find his apartment being burgled. When he confronts the burglars, they attack and injure him, leaving him unconscious on his kitchen floor. Awakening in a hospital bed, Toby finds himself physically and mentally damaged. For Toby, that night is ‘the slipped-in sheet of trick glass that tints everything on one side in its own murky colours and leaves everything on the other luminous, achingly close, untouched and untouchable” (2). The attack disrupts Toby’s life, memory, and sense of identity; it is a traumatic experience that “exceeded his capacity for registration or understanding” (Whitehead 188). As he attempts to decipher the event, Toby goes “over it a million times, obsessively, combing every thread to find the knot that set the pattern changing beyond recovery” (8). Did the burglars choose his apartment randomly? What choices could he have made to prevent it? Reluctant, or unable, to re-enter his normal life after his hospital discharge, Toby moves to Ivy House to further recuperate. The discovery of the skeleton of Dominic Ganly, an old school acquaintance, pushes Toby further into an interrogation of his past. Unable to recall how well he knew Ganly, Toby cannot determine if he might be implicated in the murder; if he is, unknowingly, a murderer. Toby’s constant questioning of the past keeps his own experiences centralised, making it difficult to escape his perspective. 

The trauma-disruption of memory, in Toby’s case, affects not just his recollections, but also his understanding of his own identity. Before the night of the attack, he saw himself as “basically, a lucky person” (1). His subsequent feelings of vulnerability cause him to lash out in ways he views as utterly unlike himself: “I had never been cruel before […] I had liked being a kind person and now I couldn’t find my way back to that, it seemed lost for good in some dark expanse of smoking rubble” (46). Toby struggles to mentally align his current behaviour with his belief in himself as a lucky person, free even from the childhood affliction of braces, who moves through life being gracious and kind to others. His memory flips between blank gaps where memories should be and false reinterpretations of past events sifted through his own preconceptions. 

Over the course of the narrative, French contrasts Toby’s memories of past events with the memories of others, revealing memory—often an uncritically accepted source of knowledge—as a malleable entity, mirroring the biases of those who do the remembering. Toby attempts to fill in the gaps in his memory by looking to others to reinforce his identity. For instance, he looks forward to seeing his cousins, Leon and Susanna, because “[s]ome tiny inchoate part of me had been hoping, against all reason, that just being around them I couldn’t be anything but myself” (101). Instead, Leon and Susanna recollect the past in a way that further disrupts Toby’s self-conception. He complains that they make him “sound like a total little shit. I wasn’t that bad” (239). Knowing his memory is compromised, Toby nonetheless refuses to trust the perspectives of others, and even his closest friends cannot convince him to revise his understanding of the past. His best friends from secondary school, Dec and Sean, reminisce about their time in school and confirm that Dominic Ganly harassed and tortured Toby’s cousins. Toby dismisses their stories: “I was there. My memory might be fucked, but it’s not that fucked” (269). He later admits, however, that if he did murder Ganly, he must have been justified: 

I did still want to believe that at some level, at least, I had been a decent guy […] surely it wasn’t too much of a stretch to think that, if I had somehow found out the full extent of what Dominic was doing to Leon, I might have been protective (399).

Toby justifies his behaviour based on his belief in who he is, insisting, “I wasn’t some callous shithead, some psychopath who could push a murder into a corner of my mind and bounce blithely on with my life as if it didn’t exist” (351). It would be difficult not to conclude that Toby clings to his narrative of the past because, if he admits his memories are wrong, he also admits that he is not the person he believes himself to be. Toby’s memory is not merely physically disrupted, but shaped by his dedication to maintaining his view of himself.

Toby’s search for answers, in the context of his fractured identity, parallels Ireland’s uncertainty about its own disrupted national identity. As Julien Guillaumond emphasises, national identity is ‘situated in a specific political, social and historical context and embodied in narratives” (114). The Celtic Tiger transformed the country economically, but in so doing also shifted the narrative identity of Ireland, which morphed from a struggling nation on the fringes of modernization into a heroic example of how to overcome the challenges of globalisation by embracing the ideals of neoliberal capitalism. The subsequent economic crash, and the necessity of accepting an EU bailout, formed a nexus of cultural trauma dividing the present from the past and changing the arc of the stories being told (Guillaumond 118, Flynn et al. 924-925). Like Toby, Ireland’s identification of self bifurcated into a before and after; instead of being the heroic victor, Ireland lost economic and political independence, as well as confidence and status.

Through Toby’s inability either to remember or to understand his past, French emphasises but the ways in which an unassimilated past blocks clear understanding of the present. Toby’s loss of a coherent identity lies in his inability to work through the trauma and see his life as a whole narrative, rather than divided into a before and after. The discovery of Ganly’s body operates not as a separate trauma, but as a confirmation that Toby cannot sustain that division—the past invariably seeps in. He believes that regaining his memory, solving the dual mysteries of burglary and murder, will help him rediscover a coherent identity, and hopes for ‘the vital fragment that would bring all the pieces together” (272). Without that fragment, Toby remains unmoored from his past self: “[i]t felt like they were talking about someone else, someone I had been close to a long time ago […] now lost. The longing to have him back was like a physical force sucking my guts out, leaving me hollow” (272). Returning to his former life—apartment, employment, relationship—is not possible, because Toby does not see himself as the same person. He similarly cannot begin a new life, because any new life would carry with it the shadows of the old.      

Toby must deal with his trauma and find a framework that helps him understand the experience if he is to recover and build his future, a challenge Ireland faces as well. As Cathy Caruth writes, a traumatic event “is not assimilated or experienced fully at the time, but only belatedly in its repeated possession of the one who experiences it. To be traumatised is precisely to be possessed by an image or event” (4 emphasis in original). As such, to move beyond the trauma requires a response to the possession, an understanding that enables action. Knowledge alone does not allow Toby to reclaim his life; trauma still disrupts his attempt to reconcile past and present because he only sees two potential options for his self-identity. This binary conception of the self is clear when he reflects that: “I had got attached, more than I had realised, to the idea of myself as the dragon-slayer. With that gone, I was right back to useless victim” (424). Even with the knowledge of his innocence, Toby refuses to assimilate his past with his present because, to him, that would require admitting to vulnerability and questionable choices as a part of who he is. 

Narrative endows experience with meaning, arising, as Roland Barthes argued, between our experience of the world and our attempts to describe that experience (114). In order to reckon with a traumatic past, those experiences are given meaning through stories. Those stories, however, are constructed. Much like Toby, corporations, politicians, and the media in Ireland scrambled to assign and deny responsibility for the economic meltdown of 2008, retelling their history through preconceived lenses that shored up existing power structures and concerns. This narrative reshaping risks overwriting verifiable reality and leaving trauma unaddressed. Narratives which glorify the days of the Celtic Tiger hide the fact that economic growth during the boom did not benefit everyone equally, and in fact served to widen the gap between the wealthy and the poor (O’Flynn, et al.). Austerity measures also disproportionately penalised the poor while those who benefited from the economic boom avoided and continue to avoid many of the negative repercussions of the recession. In their assessment of post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, Michael O’Flynn, et al. identify what they call the “dual purpose” of blame-shifting:

on the one hand, it deflects blame from the government and the relatively enduring class interests that it is prioritizing: on the other, it serves to rationalize and normalize attacks of those it has been decided must bear the costs (931). 

Rather than reckoning with the reality of the crash, the emphasis shifts to the transference of blame, avoiding a true confrontation with the decisions of the past and what those decisions say about Ireland’s identity as a nation. 

Overall, French’s writing, reflecting the struggle of a traumatised post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, offers insight into the dangers of a narrative shaping of history, especially one moulded by self-interest. The trauma remains unresolved, trapped in a contested narrative discourse more invested in preserving an ideal identity than in addressing the truth of the messy past. At the end of the novel, Toby lives trapped, unable to reconcile past with present, musing, “I can’t stop myself from wondering, with a stunning rush of grief, whether everything since that night has been no more than a last burst of light from a dying star, the last rogue fizzles of electricity along the shorting wires” (509). If, like Toby, the various factions of Ireland—politicians, the media, corporations—cling so tightly to the preservation of an identity of innocence or heroism that the reality of the trauma of the Celtic Tiger and its aftermath can never be assimilated, its effects will never be effectively confronted, and Ireland will remain possessed by the unresolved trauma of the past. 


Kathryn Hendrickson, “Uncertain Existences: Crime and Identity in Tana French’s The Witch Elm,” Alluvium, Vol. 9, No. 1 (2021): n.pag. Web 8 March 2021. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v9.1.03

About the Author

Dr Kathryn Hendrickson works as a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Barron County. She earned her PhD at Marquette University, where her dissertation Genre and Loss: The Impossibility of Restoration in 20th Century Detective Fiction examined detective fiction; its creation and maintenance as a genre; how it is continually conceptualized and re-formed within popular culture; and the ways in which it enables critical engagement with questions of genre and boundaries. More generally, her interests lie in genre studies and 20th and 21st century transatlantic fiction, with a focus on mystery, crime, and detection.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland, and Stephen Heath. “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives.” Eds. Roland Barthes and Stephen Heath. Music, Image, Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977, 79–124.

Caruth, Cathy. “From Trauma and Experience.” Eds. Michael Rossington and Anne Whitehead. Theories of Memory: A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007, 199–205.

Coughlan, Claire. “Paper Tiger: An Interview with Tana French.” Ed. Declan Burke. Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century. Dublin: Liberties Press, 2011, n.p.

French, Tana. The Witch Elm. New York, Penguin Books, 2019. 

Guillaumond, Julien. “Is a New Definition of Irish Identity Emerging in the Republic of Ireland in the 21st Century?” Eds. Richard R. Verdugo and Andrew Milne. National Identity: Theory and Research. Charlotte: Information Age Publishing, 2016, 113–145.

Horsley, Lee. Twentieth-Century Crime Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Kuhn, Annette, “From Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination.” Michael Rossington and Anne Whitehead. Eds. Theories of Memory: A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007, 230–236. 

O’Flynn, Michael et al. “Scapegoating During a Time of Crisis: A Critique of Post-Celtic Tiger Ireland.” Sociology (Oxford), 48:5 (2014), 921–37. 

O’Toole, Fintan. “From Chandler and the ‘Playboy’ to the Contemporary Crime Wave.” The Irish Times, 21 November 2009 (accessed 25 February 2021): https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/tv-radio-web/from-chandler-and-the-playboy-to-the-contemporary-crime-wave-1.776393 

Whitehead, Anne. “Introduction.” Eds. Michael Rossington and Anne Whitehead. Theories of Memory: A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007, 186–191. 

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