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Review: The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly

January 10, 2011

Laura Ellen Scott last appeared on this site interviewing thriller writer Sophie Hannah. Here, she reviews the debut novel by Erin Kelly, a writer working in a similar vein. And speaking of “creepy fiction,” Scott has news of her own this week: Her collection of very short stories, Curio, is now available online and as a download from Uncanny Valley Press. — Art Taylor

The Poison Tree

By Erin Kelly

Reviewed by Laura Ellen Scott

Come for the mystery, stay for the gothic-tinged love story that drives Erin Kelly’s impressive debut thriller, The Poison Tree.

In the sultry summer of 1997, gifted but unambitious languages scholar Karen Clarke offers German tutoring to a wild drama student named Biba, only to become drawn into the actress’s decadent, bohemian world. Biba and Rex are a pair of enigmatic siblings squatting in their childhood home, a  a crumbling mansion perched between suburban London and the pastoral dream of Queen’s Wood. A nervous Heathcliff analogue, Rex is as brooding as Biba is high strung, and it comes as no surprise to learn that their childhood was marred by tragedy. Stranded for the summer by her school friends, Karen moves into the mansion where her fascination with Biba develops into a drug and alcohol fueled crush, at least until Karen finds a soul mate in Rex. As Karen describes it:

Nothing about his personality changed: the confidence he showed in the bedroom did not extend beyond it. He was still simultaneously deferential to and controlling of his sister, neurotic about the house, and uptight, even boring, but my feelings for him were undergoing a subtle evolution. Perhaps Rex was filling the void left by Biba’s absence, or perhaps that’s just what sex does to you, but the focus of my attention and affection was slowly transferring from sister to brother . . . I wondered how I could have ever doubted his loveliness. His face was no longer a simulacrum of Biba’s, but beautiful in its own right.

The novel alternates between the events of that fateful summer and the present, as Rex, having been convicted of a mysterious murder, returns home after a ten- year stint in prison. Now married and parents to a nine-year-old daughter, Rex and Karen are haunted by the past and sobered by responsibility. Driving Rex home from prison, Karen wonders how he sees the world now.

Does he notice the lack of telephone boxes or the proliferation of Polish grocers? What about the plugged-in pedestrians with white wires connecting their ears to their pockets? The red circles on the road that welcome us into and usher us out of the congestion zone? I’m dying to know what he is thinking.

Ten years later, Rex is adjusting to life as a new man if not a free one; the son of a famous photographer, Rex is a celebrity ex-con forced to change his name and live very modestly on Karen’s income. Having grown brittle and joyless over the years, Karen worries that the press will find them out and re-visit the scandal. So who did Rex kill and why? We won’t find out until Karen recalls that dizzying summer spent with him and his sister. And even more than those shared secrets, Karen is terrified Rex will discover the dark secret she herself has kept all these years.

I have given up so much and done so many terrible things already for the sake of my family that I can only keep going. I do not know what is going to happen to us. I am frightened, but I feel strong. I have the strength of a woman who has everything to lose.

Toggling back and forth between the two timelines, Kelly places significant emphasis on Rex’s offense, withholding the details of his crime as long as possible, even though all the principals know who died and how. Not much is at stake except the reader’s curiosity, but there is tremendous pleasure to be derived from the author’s lush and painstakingly rendered 1997 London. In particular, Kelly’s reverence for nascent, clunky technologies is especially charming. In contrast, the world of the The Poison Tree’s present is stark, governed by Karen’s paranoia; she too has committed a crime, the revelation of which will change everything. In this timeline, emotion overtakes plot. Rex has never lived with his daughter, and his quiet struggle to find his place as the man of the house is riveting, outflanking the unlikely action that concludes the novel. Similarly, the darkness of Karen’s resolve in the final scenes rises far above the circumstances.

Perhaps Erin Kelly has yet to cultivate the tangential richness of Tana French or Sophie Hannah, writers who hold their fictional worlds together by confidence rather than convention, but there are strong signs of improvisational grace in The Poison Tree, especially in the characterizations of Karen and others who aren’t quite as showy as Biba and Rex. However, you’ll find no loose threads in The Poison Tree; every detail, no matter how casual, connects back to the central concern. The result is a solid debut thriller that is by turns familiar and inspired.

Editor’s additional note: For a comparison between The Poison Tree and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, also check out Maureen Corrigan‘s take on Kelly’s book in the Washington Post.

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