Tana French’s New Thriller Looks At What Happens When White Men Lose Their Privilege

The Witch Elm, which follows a privileged man whose life gets derailed, is a timely window into what happens when men lose their precious power.

What does it mean to be lucky in today’s world? In Tana French’s first stand-alone thriller, her only novel apart from her beloved Dublin Murder Squad series, she attempts to answer this question by taking us inside the mind of a self-proclaimed lucky guy. Toby is a nice-looking, affluent, modestly ambitious 28-year-old man who regards himself as the hero in his own story — the novel is told from the first person point of view, after all — and has never had to consider himself otherwise. He’s fun and affable and easygoing simply because he doesn’t have to question if or how he will succeed — he just knows he will: “Worrying had always seemed to me like a laughable waste of time and energy; so much simpler to go about your business and deal with the problem when it arose, if it did, which it mostly didn’t.”

When we first meet Toby in The Witch Elm, he has the tunnel vision of the most privileged kind of man, who doesn’t see a reason to be critical of gross injustices in society because he’s always been able to ignore them. He doesn’t need to worry about paying the bills, he unquestioningly trusts authority, he takes for granted both his safety and his happiness because he assumes it’s his absolute right to be both safe and happy. He contains a “good guy’s” amount of misogyny, just enough to call the ex-girlfriend of a good pal “noticeably crazy,” while also worshiping his own girlfriend, Melissa. But seen through Toby’s eyes, this worship only flattens her, so much so that her inner life becomes opaque and she’s little more than a sweet and pretty haze.

They can play hard if they work hard, while eschewing any demands for empathy or introspection along the way.  

“I think it just, like, genuinely never occurred to him that he might not get something he wanted,” Toby later says of a high school friend who fell apart after not getting into the colleges he was expected to attend. But Toby could easily be talking about himself here, as well as a class of young privileged white men who play by lucky white men rules. “He was a good bloke, basically. Kind of a party animal,” Toby adds. They can play hard if they work hard, while eschewing any demands for empathy or introspection along the way. They are the kinds of men — “good guys” — who became the focus of a fierce national debate when Justice Brett Kavanaugh yelled his way onto the Supreme Court. That there might be others who dispute that these men are, in fact, actually good, barely registers.

When Toby is the victim of a vicious assault that leaves him with a limp as well as a brain injury, his vexation mounts as he registers that, for the first time in his life, almost nothing is certain, even — or especially — his status as a good and lucky guy. After a long stint in the hospital, Toby still has trouble remembering words, he’s not fit to return to work, and he has PTSD. He’s suddenly an anxious person. He has difficulty speaking. He’s angry. It’s a good thing he didn’t have to testify in court because he would’ve been a disaster.

Slowly but steadily as Toby deals with the aftermath of his injuries, French reveals Toby’s blind spots, to himself but especially to readers. If The Witch Elm is her most compelling and urgent novel in years, it’s not entirely because of the plot — a somewhat convoluted mystery in which the whodunit matters only slightly — but because French’s masterful character study is absolutely riveting and timely. She delves deep into the point of view of a young advantaged man whose world opens up in ugly ways when he gets derailed from the path he has always believed he was entitled to, to see only what he’s chosen to see.

The lucky ones are the people who get to see only the good in others: their friends, their family, their colleagues, and the people who are devoted to making sure their power remains intact. In the era of #MeToo, you’re “lucky” if you only ever saw the studio executive rumored to harass his female colleagues being a visionary and all-around mensch, or the college buddy accused of assault only ever killing it on the rugby field. This lucky mindset is the father of convicted rapist Brock Turner mourning the fact that his son “will never be his happy go lucky self again with the easy going personality and welcoming smile.” It’s Matt Damon saying, in defense of Al Franken, that “there’s a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation.” It’s Javier Bardem claiming that Woody Allen has been the victim of a public lynching for facing accusations of sexual assault of a child, and Catherine Deneuve saying that #MeToo is a witch hunt. (Though she later apologized.) It’s the people who will tune out evidence to the contrary at all costs in order to maintain the status quo.

After his attack, Toby is shocked to find that his identity is mutable: “I never thought much about my personality before, but when I did, I took it for granted that it was mine, you know? That it was me,” Toby says, still finding it difficult to articulate himself. “And now it’s like, I could wake up in the morning a, a, a Trekkie, or gay, or a mathematical genius, or one of those guys who shout at girls on the street to get their tits out? And I’d have no way to know it was coming. Or to do anything about it.” Toby is peeved that his doctors can’t give him a definitive timeline for when he might go back to living his “regular” life, and he’s frustrated that the cops working on his case can’t quickly solve it. That he is suddenly disabled is not only a nuisance, it’s a violation of the lucky white guy rules. Identity politics were meant for the less fortunate.

You’re lucky if you believe that reporting a crime is the most efficient way to solve it. 

Although the novel is set in Ireland, it’s easy to see parallels to America’s Black Lives Matter movement, in which you’re “lucky” if the sight of a police officer makes you feel safe. You’re lucky if you believe that reporting a crime is the most efficient way to solve it. You’re lucky if the sound of a siren signals to you that justice is being carried out, and you’re even luckier to believe that the police work for you.

Toby needs time to rehabilitate both his body and his mind, and yes, he’s incredibly lucky to have a place to go to do just that: Ivy House, the family estate in Dublin that he’d used during his younger years as his own personal frat house. In a move that reveals true generosity, Toby signs on to care for his Uncle Hugo, who is dying from brain cancer, even as he seeks a safe space (yes, I said safe space) to heal himself. But of course, this is a Tana French novel, so recovery won’t be as easy as all that, especially when skeletal remains are found on the property and Toby must aim toward regaining control of his future even as he reckons with ghosts from his past.

Much of his reckoning with his younger days involves reconnecting with the cousins he grew up with. Susanna is a mother of two and Leon is a gay man, and both are more cynical and have a wider worldview than Toby ever needed to have. “At least they’re being polite about the whole thing,” Susanna says of the police officers who investigate the grounds of Ivy House. “If we were on the dole and crammed into a council house…” Or, more pointedly, when Toby scoffs at the idea that his own doctors treated him better than they would others, Susanna describes her own poor treatment while pregnant. “If your doctors went all out for you, great. But not everyone gets to live in the same world as you.” It’s only upon meeting Susanna and Leon — both of whom have been victims of harassment, and worse — that it becomes clear to the reader how patronizing Toby has been to them. The pals he enjoyed partying with at Ivy House that he regards with such fond nostalgia were also bullies and abusers.

When Leon reveals to Toby that he often contemplated killing himself in high school in order to put an end to merciless bullying, Toby is shocked and upset. But he’s still not entirely ready to accept that his world is so much different from his cousins’, that their shared reality could diverge so sharply, and that he could have been so completely unaware of it. Being lucky is being able to believe that your friends are good people, just because you were only ever privy to one side of them.

Toby’s relationship with his cousins ultimately takes an unsubtle turn, and the nuance that Tana French is so good at all but disappears. This is not a complaint — at this stage perhaps we can all do with being hit over the head repeatedly with the injustices that Susanna and Leon have had to deal with. Susanna tells the story of the time when she was pregnant and her doctor abused her: “Basically, he really enjoyed forcing me to do things I didn’t want to do, and he really enjoyed hurting me.” She remains vague about what exactly happened in her doctor’s office, like she’s ashamed, or even like she feels the need to soften the blow in order to protect Toby. She’s still charged with the emotional labor of not making Toby too uncomfortable, but it’s time to break her silence. Toby needs to know how the world works for her.

Years later, she tells an incredulous Toby that she was met with anger when she finally confronted her gynecologist: “He lost it. Not scared; furious. That was the amazing part: he wasn’t putting it on, he was genuinely outraged. He was jabbing his finger in my face, threatening to have me committed, call Child Services and have my kids taken away.” And when Susanna finally decided to ask for help from the police, as Toby had suggested, they “laughed in my face,” she says. “I didn’t have any evidence…Just she-said-he-said, and apparently what she said didn’t count for much.” Ouch. Anyone who’s seen President Trump mock the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford will understand Susanna’s anger and helplessness.

While it may seem shocking, in the last year some have just begun to realize the system is rigged for the luckiest people.

But remember, Susanna is still Toby’s cousin, which means she’s wealthy and has her own privilege; she’s just not at the top of the pecking order. “Has there ever been someone,” Susanna tries to explain to Toby, doing the work so many less privileged people have had to do in order to illuminate inequity to a lucky man, “who treated you like you weren’t a person? Not because of anything you’d done; just because of what you were. Someone who did whatever they wanted to you. Anything they felt like…And you were powerless to do anything about it. If you tried to say anything, everyone thought you were ridiculous and whiny and you should quit making a fuss because this is normal, this is the way it’s supposed to be for someone like you.” It is here, in this vulnerable state, where Toby finds himself living for the first time. His problems, and the nasty plot twists in store for him, may mean that his life has taken quite an unlucky turn. Or, it might just be that few men of privilege have to grapple with any of the consequences of their actions, and it still feels jarring to watch one of them squirm.

While it may seem shocking, in the last year some have just begun to realize that the system is rigged for the luckiest of people. It’s revelatory to look inside the mind of someone who benefited from that system for so long that he knew no other way of life, until one day he had to. Still, Toby’s reckoning does not contain a light bulb moment when he realizes exactly how privileged he was (and still is — he’s temporarily disabled, but he’s still rich and white) so much as a slow dawning that life isn’t as easy for others as it has been for him. Through Toby’s eyes, we see how this simple fact is tremendously difficult for him to grasp, even when presented in explicit terms by his loved ones. And while it’s fascinating to watch someone with privilege try to develop empathy for others, Toby still doesn’t entirely get it. Maybe because he knows he’ll be lucky again soon enough. Truly being lucky is believing that the playing field has always been level, and that any loss of power is merely temporary. ●

Maris Kreizman’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, the LA Times, Vanity Fair, Vulture, Esquire, GQ, OUT magazine, and more.

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