on December 17, 2010
Review based on Advance Reading Proof*
A wonderfully well-written, psychological thriller debut, one that just cries out to be read and discussed. A perfect choice for a book club. Although I found it a bit disconcerting with early chapters switching between then and now, it is really just an essential hiccup in the storyline. This ploy simply increases the building suspense as the story unfolds. Watch out for author Erin Kelly, she has thrown down the gauntlet and intends to stay around for a long time!
An unusual storyline from the voice of the protagonist, Karen Clarke, the characters with their many differences are well-drawn and continue to grow throughout the book. Take a young normal girl who just happens to be fluent in several languages and throw her suddenly into a completely different society and what is she to do? Her meeting with Biba opens a whole new world to her, one she is not only introduced to, but embraces wholeheartedly. In 1990s London, the beautiful and vivacious Biba lives her life fully and dramatically, essentially the actress she wants to be. When she meets Karen, the straight-A student of linguistics, she brings her to her home, a very run-down yet exotic house of many characters, some of whom live there with Biba and her brother Rex. Soon Karen is a constant visitor.
The book begins near the end, then switches back to this carefree and exciting life, time and time again. We learn of old secrets that have a distinct effect on the brother and sister, and later newer secrets come between them. Karen can not tell her story alone without telling the story of Rex and Biba. Their lives and stories are tangled as one. These three are the main characters, but there are more roles to be played by lesser players. Still, they are all bigger than life and all play their parts boldly. The story unfolds between this wild beginning, fraught with suspense and lies, racing toward an unknown and unexpected tragedy. Clues and portents are sprinkled between these carefree days of one summer, building and building to an excruciating level. Murder, prison, life, loss, all wrapped up in one great read. Descriptive, alluring, and definitely atmospheric, characteristics run the gamut from innocence and trust to parties, drugs, drama, sex and lies.
This is not a book one can easily review without spoilers, mostly because of the way the book is written with all its portents. That said, the ending is shocking and yet feels right. Once read, the reader will understand what I mean, but earlier in the book he/she may not. This is an exceptional start to what I believe to be a long run for this author.
*Though I reviewed this from an uncorrected proof, I could see no flaws that I would anticipate would be removed in the final version.
In this novel the surprises keep coming until the very end, so be sure you read the Epilogue. By page 335, from quite a large cast of characters only two remain who know the whole story, and that is down to one by the time we reach page 340 and final in this edition. I almost felt it a compliment that it had all been revealed to me as well. The story is very clever indeed, and clever in the right way. Indeed, I might have difficulty in recalling when I last encountered such a well developed plot.
If you will take my word for that, don't let some of the carefully placed hints in the earlier chapters irritate you as they nearly irritated me. What we learn first is that Something has happened to one or more of the participants, but it is only disclosed gradually who all the affected parties might have been. I kept expecting the hints to be resolved on the next page or in the next chapter, and it was after realising that I was going to have to wait that I fully got into the swing of the narration. Who was involved in What is a thread that unravels slowly and gradually. What the Great Dark Secret was is something we think we must have got to about three-quarters way through, but there is a very unexpected twist in the tale still later; and, come to think of it, it is only quite near the conclusion that we stop finding out about new and unsuspected deceptions.
Incidental surprises come and go too, including one quite lengthy and beautifully placed decoy. Otherwise none of the characters or events are wasted or without some later relevance. This is part of what I mean by calling this book and its author clever. The observation and characterisation are very smart as well. The various actors (no pun intended) in the drama are vivid and memorable. The depictions of, say, a squalid house inhabited by party-giving youngsters or a cramped set of offices for university administrators, or the town of Bern have a true-to-life feel to them, and although what happens to the dramatis personae here is not the stuff of everyday living for most of us, the author's skill keeps it believable, as of course it should be considering the news items that we read and hear about every few days.
The Poison Tree is a page-turner mainly because of the quality of the plot, but the writing is good too, unless we count a strange aversion of the author's to the objective pronoun `me'. `I' gets substituted invariably when anyone else is included, to such an extent that this has to be deliberate - `attention and conversation were turned back to Rex and I' for instance. Would Erin Kelly, would anyone except Wurzel Gummidge, have written `attention and conversation were turned back to I'? No matter, I suppose, but on p228 `underestimated' should be `overestimated', a strange piece of illogicality that I keep coming across. I don't know how to react to the generalisation about `70's parents' at one point, being a 70's parent myself, but I enjoyed some of the cattier descriptions like the `pub trainers' worn by the kind of young men we call chavs and scallies these days, or the speech affectations of `class tourists'.
It's a novel about a brilliant young woman by a brilliant young woman. Brilliance is all very well of course, but readability is something else, and you will be finished with this story before you think, because the interest never lets up. It seems that this is a debut novel, in which case `Wow!' might be a reasonable reaction. I like to think that if Erin Kelly has more of this quality in her she will not keep it another of her secrets from us.
on January 26, 2011
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
on July 7, 2011
At the center of The Poison Tree is the (forgive the pop-psychology) co-dependent 1997 friendship of Karen Clarke and Biba Capel, as narrated by Karen from 12 years in the future. Kelly charms the reader through Karen's dry, self-mocking sense of humor and withering and unflinching observations. At one point, Karen describes a former lover as "grunting his way through his limited repertoire" in the bedroom while a bored Karen traces the outline of the nations of Europe on the bedroom ceiling. Later, Karen tries to effect a kiss after smoking pot, and face-plants. After Biba's boyfriend inadvertently declares himself "b-lls deep" to his own mother when she phones him, Karen notes the panicked din he makes in the bedroom "presumably extricating his b-lls from Biba" to answer his mother's phone call. One of the subtle psychological pleasures of The Poison Tree is noting the contrast between the Karen of 1997 - accurately described as "clever" by a former lover's mother, observant, wryly funny - and the chapters featuring the Karen of the present - brittle, high-strung, snappish, humorless, and secretive.
If Karen is the protagonist of The Poison Tree, her ultimate antagonist is her self-described best friend, the complex Biba. But despite Karen's charms, Biba is in some ways, at least for a while, the more sympathetic and relatable of the two. Biba is melodramatic and self-absorbed. Unfailingly well-mannered, her politesse, while perhaps sincere in the moment, can prove to be manipulative if she changes her mind shortly afterward. However, she clearly appreciates Karen's friendship (at least on her own terms) and envisions a future with Karen in it, to the extent that Biba even approves wholeheartedly when Karen begins an affair with her brother, Rex. However, when Biba in turn begins her own affair with a local boy, Karen, in a defining moment, voices an unspoken "Get your hands off her" in a desperate moment of irrational jealousy and insecurity, protectiveness, and fear. Karen has clearly not envisioned a future in which she loses any part of Biba to a more powerful desire and need than their friendship. It is Biba, not Karen, who plots their shared professional futures (though again on her own terms); Biba who uncannily and unfailingly picks out the right-sized clothes for Karen; and Biba who at one point teasingly but thoughtfully points out that the difference between them as that where Karen sees unpleasantry, Biba sees drama and passion.
Moreover, Biba's more childlike tendencies often manifest themselves poignantly. Greeting her father at the door with a squealing, delighted "Daddy!" just before their enraged father casts her out to the street. And Biba's pathetic attempt to defend her beloved brother by angrily shouting that "He's 24!" when their father erroneously says that Rex is 26, and it was about time he got a job and a place of his own.
At least twice in this original novel, Kelly's characters advance the story by subverting the traditional family psychological dynamic. At one point, the older Karen admits wishing in the past that her daughter Alice had never been born. And the Capel children, Rex and Biba, exploited or rejected by their own parents who owed them unconditional love, instead themselves blindly protect their parents who did so much damage to them, thus showing them them unconditional love they themselves were denied.
Amusing and touching in its own right, the humor and poignancy of The Poison Tree serve to make its violence, and its ending, all the more jarring.
(An engrossed reader of The Poison Tree might note some editing inconsistencies. However, none are major derailments. If you catch them, you have already been so gripped by The Poison Tree you'll quickly move along and forget them.)
Five stars, at least.
on January 26, 2011
A shy, insecure college student named Karen Clarke is invited to spend the summer at the home of her glamorous new friend, Biba. She arrives at the remote mansion to find an unusual band of colorful people--including Biba's handsome brother, Rex. Welcomed into their strange but exciting world, Karen soon learns that all is not as it seems. Years later, an older, wiser Karen looks back at that summer of secrets, surprises, madness, and murder. And it isn't over yet....
There's nothing I love more than a good suspense story. With this debut novel, Erin Kelly joins a group of British authors that includes Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, Sophie Hannah, Robert Goddard, and Tana French. If you like them, I think you're going to like her. Her story is dark and surprising, her characters are vivid, and the moody atmosphere of impending doom that she creates is like a dense London fog. From its ominous opening pages to its shocking conclusion, THE POISON TREE is a terrific tale in the Gothic tradition. Highly recommended.
on July 4, 2010
The great strength of Erin Kelly's highly readable debut novel is the plotting. She managed to drip feed the reader with developments and clues throughout the book that keep the interest at a high level without falling into the trap of stretching the realms of belief.
Set in the present and the hot summer of 1997 in London, she tells the story from the perspective of Karen, a language student who meets the mysteriously glamourous bohemian Biba, a drama student, and her older brother Rex who live in a large house in North London that has seen better days. Over the summer of her final year at university, Karen moves in with Karen and Rex, and into a world of parties, mystery, alcohol, drugs and a variety of eccentric and shady characters, including drug dealing Guy. You know from the outset that things are going to go wrong because in the first chapter, in the present day, Karen is with Rex who has just finished a prison term.
While the plotting is superb, the characterisation and sense of place is less well developed, but it's still a very satisfying read and you never quite know in which direction things are going to go. None of the characters are hugely likable, but it's well worth reading and Kelly may be a talent to watch.
The Poison Tree is one of those books where nothing much seems to happen most of the time, but it still makes for absorbing reading. From the beginning there is the sense that something bad has happened and the presumption is that this affects the main participants - Biba, Rex and Karen. Gradually the author gives us hints which suggest when and where and the nature of this momentous event. The narrative switches between the time leading up to this event and a time considerably after. It is almost as though the storm clouds are gathering, but when the climax comes it is related quickly and clinically and is over in a few pages.
The author has peopled her story with characters who are interesting and appealing and we gradually learn more about them as she fleshes them out. Karen, who tells the story, is probably the least exotic of the three, and comes from a normal background and lives a normal, uneventful life before coming across Biba and later her brother, Rex. Biba is a colourful person, bubbly, eccentric and very appealing. Although they are very close, her brother is quite different and there are hints that he is suffering from at least a mild form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The secondary characters, such as Nina, are also beautifully described and very easy to imagine.
I did wonder, after the main events, whether the book would gently wind down. However, Erin Kelly keeps the interest going with what is, perhaps a somewhat predictable twist in the tale of the plot. This is an impressive first novel. The plot does not suggest a page turner, but once you get into this book, that is exactly what it becomes and that is mainly down to the skill with which the descriptions of people and places are put together. Perhaps not for readers who are looking for action packed, adrenalin fuelled stories, but I imagine most readers will enjoy this offering.
on August 3, 2011
I liked this book, but not quite as much as many of the reviewers. I enjoyed the youthful decadence of the characters with their overindulgence in drugs, sex, and alcohol; the creepy brother-sister relationship; the elegance in decay of the setting; and the time shifting narrative that teased out the plot. However, I found the use of what seemed like six to ten metaphors per page to be an annoying affection of the part of the author, but since this is a debut novel, I overlooked that. However, unlike people who found the ending perfect, I found the ending absolutely preposterous. Even though The Poison Tree is fun read, I don't know if I'd recommend it.
on October 12, 2011
Karen Clarke meets Biba Capel by accident one afternoon, but that afternoon changes everything for Karen. Biba and her brother Rex live in a world that is unlike anything Karen has ever imagined. They are free and open and basically everything Karen is not. But she wants to be part of their lives at almost any cost. As they spend more and more time together, however, Karen learns that there are secrets hidden in the siblings' pasts. It all comes to an end with one horrible afternoon. Ten years later, it is Karen who is picking up Rex from prison. As she and her daughter welcome Rex back into their lives, she reflects back on the path that led to this present. But can she continue to keep the secrets that she's harbored for over a decade?
The Poison Tree is the story of three friends, one magical summer, and the tragic event that changes their lives forever. And just when you think you have it all figured out, Kelly adds another wrinkle to the mix. A psychological thriller that's sure to please fans of Ruth Rendell, Minette Walters, and Sophie Hannah.
on September 23, 2010
I think Erin Kelly is certainly a talent to watch. I enjoyed this from cover to cover, never guessing the ending!
It is similar in style to the Nicci French books, which I always enjoy too.