The Poison Tree
Erin Kelly dangles suspense carrots early on in her edge-of-the-seat debut thriller: “[The floor] was in terrible condition when we lived there, and afterward, there was that terrible stain.”
Honor student Karen Clarke has just finished university and settles in at eccentric Biba’s GREAT EXPECTATIONS-like “crumbling urban castle,” where wretched bohemian excess belies the affluent quarter of London known as Highgate. Enthralled by Biba’s intoxicating aura, it is Karen’s “tipping point between innocence and experience, after which everything began to descend into chaos.”
Set mainly as flashbacks to summer 1997 and wild-child Biba’s hedonistic 21st birthday bash, there are gruesome deaths --- other than Princess Diana’s. In the present, Karen reflects that she has “done so many terrible things. I am frightened, but I feel strong. I have the strength of a woman who has everything to lose.” She is haunted by “passive spirits who have become active ghosts.”
But who did the dirty deed? Biba’s brother, Rex Capel (“rhyme with apple”), and Karen’s lover is convicted. Freed 10 years later, he moves in with Karen and their nine-year-old daughter, Alice. As with another Alice, the one in Wonderland, things are not as they seem --- only this is no bizarre dream for Karen, Rex and Alice. Making bad choices often comes back to haunt, and a truly evil spirit insinuates itself into their lives at the end of Karen’s decade-long lost weekend.
Parallels are drawn from John Knowles’s A SEPARATE PEACE. Scholarly Gene clearly is representative of Karen, and athletic idol Finny’s fall from a tree is Biba’s downward spiral. In this case, a figurative fall from a poison tree. What may seem to be unrealistic passages can be attributed to the perception of Karen’s naïveté, though her character deftly evolves. Sensory overload with details that puts readers into the minds of the three central characters helps to understand that evolution.
This extraordinarily talented author is compared to Barbara Vine and Tana French. Au contraire! It is they who should be compared to Kelly. Literary fiction disguised as a thriller, with writing as rich as the Queen’s coffers, this is one of my best reads in decades.
Reviewed by L. Dean Murphy (www.DeanMurphy.net) on March 28, 2011