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The Poison Tree: A Novel Hardcover – January 6, 2011
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From Publishers Weekly
British author Kelly deftly weaves past and present in her highly satisfying debut novel of psychological suspense, which reveals how a convicted murderer came to be released after serving 10 years in prison. In 1993, the naïve yet brilliant Karen receives a scholarship to London's Queen Charlotte's College, where she's beguiled by Biba Capel, an iconoclastic and edgy drama student, who soon introduces Karen to her strange older brother, Rex. Karen joins sister and brother at the grand but deteriorating Capel family house in Highgate, with its several unconventional tenants. The three throw disorderly parties that enrage the neighbors, but they succeed in creating their own Edenic existence until the unwanted intrusion of Biba's hostile lover. Though melodrama looms, including a double homicide, the tension never wanes, and the ensuing horror comes as a major shock. The surprises don't end until the last page of this twisted tale with its wonderfully evocative London atmosphere. 5-city author tour. (Jan.)
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A dark, twisted tale of domestic tragedy, Kelly’s debut doesn’t miss a step: character, plot, dialogue, atmosphere, and pacing are right on the money. Karen Clarke has always done what’s expected and been a good girl: exceptional, conscientious student; obedient daughter; undemanding in her personal relationships. Then she meets fascinating Biba and falls in love with the young actress’ impetuosity and freewheeling lifestyle, both so different from anything Karen knows. That Biba wants to be her friend amazes Karen, who gratefully moves in with the actress and her protective older brother, soon to become Karen’s lover. At first, Karen finds her housemates’ casual lifestyle immensely appealing, but it isn’t long before she unearths the tangled emotions and tragic history that lies beneath the carefree scene. By that time, however, she’s so deeply enmeshed in her friends’ complicated, messed-up lives, she is unable to back away. Intriguing characters, a carefully constructed story that smoothly integrates past and present, and a shocker of an ending make this one special. --Stephanie Zvirin
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The story begins when Rex Capel, having been released from prison after serving ten years for murder, moves in with Karen Clark and nine-year-old Alice. Who was killed and why are revealed as Erin Kelly skillfully transports the reader back and forth in time.
Ten years prior, Karen, a highly intelligent college student, is immediately enchanted by Biba Capel after a chance meeting. Despite her many trips to the Continent from the U.K., Karen, raised by conventional middle class parents, is naïve. Biba is like a rare bird, but little did Karen know how her life would change after an exchange of contact information.
Upon attending Biba’s birthday bash and meeting Rex, the enigmatic brother, along with other friends, Karen wants nothing more than to shed her old lifestyle and become a part of this flamboyant bohemian group. Not only is she fascinated by the people, she is amazed by their massive house, despite its state of filth and disrepair. Unbeknownst to her, the house is owned by Biba’s and Rex’s father, with whom they have little contact.
Karen’s dream comes true when Biba invites her to move into the decrepit mansion. Alcohol, drugs and sex abound at Highgate, and Karen loves being part of the scene. She even turns a blind eye to, putting it mildly, the lack of cleanliness and thrives on the chaos. Eventually, she and Rex become lovers, and Karen is happier than she has ever been.
Karen naïvely ignores the undercurrent of intrigue surrounding the Capel family until she is unwittingly caught up in the drama. After a night of bloodshed culminating in Rex’s arrest, she must rebuild her life from its beginning. Having lost almost everything, Karen is determined to protect herself and Alice from ghosts that reappear. This part of the story is Erin Kelly at her best. Karen’s intense fear is palpable.
Despite being underwhelmed by the ending, I really admire Erin Kelly’s ability to develop characters. What a talent!
One night, things go horribly awry, and Karen flees from her idyllic life back to reality. Ten years later, Karen and nine-year-old Alice pick Rex up from prison after his sentence for murder has ended. But some old ghosts resurface, ones that Karen is determined to keep hidden--no matter what the cost. Nothing will get between her and her family.
The Poison Tree is enjoyable and a quick read. While Erin Kelly doesn't necessarily tread any new territory, she knows how to tell a compelling story, and you can easily see how someone as level-headed and intelligent as Karen could get drawn into the chaotic, dramatic lives of Biba and Rex. My only criticism of the book is I didn't feel it gave much depth to the present-day relationship and interactions between Karen and Rex. While I understand the bulk of the book needed to be spent on telling the story from start to finish, since the book interspersed past and present, I would have liked a little more exploration of the state of Karen and Rex's relationship, given her fears of it all coming undone. That being said, if you enjoy mysteries, this is one that draws out its suspense in a satisfying way.