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Book Review - The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly

Summer of Love
The Poison Tree
by
Erin Kelly

Published by Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review by W. R. Greer


Erin Kelly's The Poison Tree tells two stories ten years apart. It begins with Karen Clarke, accompanied by her nine-year-old daughter, on her way to pick up her husband, Rex, who has been released from prison after serving ten years for murder. Karen is fearful, not of Rex, but of secrets she harbors. She narrates:

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.

This is an intriguing premise that hooks the reader. Whom did Rex murder? What terrible things has Karen already done and what does she have to lose? Erin Kelly then skips the story back to 1997 when Karen was a student at Queen Charlotte's College in London. While an exemplary student with top grades and an innate ability to speak foreign languages, Karen's life is dull and dreary. She's the only child of two only children, so she carries the responsibility of living up to her parents' expectations. Her life at college has been predictable and lacking any passion. Even her relationship with her boyfriend was mundane and unexciting, and when he broke it off to pursue someone more appropriate for his station in life, Karen wasn't upset.

A chance meeting with an electric and enchanting woman named Biba Capel changed everything in Karen's life. Biba was everything Karen was not: impulsive, reckless, irresponsible, popular, and charming. Biba lived in a dilapidated mansion with her brother, Rex. They drank lots of wine, consumed drugs, and hosted boisterous parties. Biba was finishing her college career and was in the process of parlaying her beauty and charisma into an acting career. Rex, apparently, had no employment. Karen left her apartment that she shared with three equally boring classmates to spend the summer with Biba and Rex. Their bohemian lifestyle, along with Biba's magnetic pull, was the antithesis of the predictable path of Karen's life. Karen quickly embraced all they had to offer, becoming Biba's best friend and Rex's lover.

Swirling through this haze of friendship, sex, and an idyllic life without responsibility were several ominous warnings that all was not well in Biba's and Rex's world. Rex harbored an almost neurotic obsession for taking care of Biba and protecting her from harm, even from herself. Biba's self-absorption and penchant for drama, if not outright self-destruction, hinted at dark secrets that haunted her soul. The mansion where they lived was still owned by their father, who did not want a relationship with them, nor did he want them living in the house. Like all settings where, at first blush, everything seems too good to be true, reality will intrude and threaten to undo it all.

Interspersed with the story of what had happened during that fateful summer are scenes of Karen, Rex, and their daughter, Alice, trying to find their footing as a family. Rex is unsure of his role and frustrated that he can't find work because of his past. Karen is claustrophobic with the addition of Rex to their already tiny house. She also is paranoid that someone will discover her secrets, without telling us exactly what these are and how she could lose everything if they were exposed.

Erin Kelly paints a vivid picture of London, the Capel home, and the woods that abut their property. The Poison Tree is one of those novels where the sense of place is as much a character in the novel as its protagonists. While Karen is at the center of the novel, Biba steals the show. She's a wild child in a woman's body, with unpredictable behavior and a way of drawing everybody into her world. Karen, on the other hand, can never fully let go of her responsible background. Although Rex's actions, and the underlying secrets behind them, are all understood by the story's end, Rex himself remains a mystery. There's a bit of haze to Rex, like he's important to the plot, but he never comes to full form as a character.

When Karen in the present time lives with the paralyzing fear that her secrets will be uncovered, it becomes a bit tiresome without her being specific about what those secrets are. In time, these become known, and letting the reader know what they are earlier in the story would have ruined the surprise. I kept wondering, though, about the purpose of these annoying chapters. By the time I was done with the novel, I understood why they were there.

The Poison Tree tends to be over descriptive, but it's never flat or boring. It draws the reader into a world where you hope for the best for Karen, Biba, and Rex, but you know it's not going to end well. Erin Kelly does an excellent job of letting the tension build until the maelstrom envelops their lives, and it's up to Karen to set things right. It's a touch of gothic in a modern nightmare that mixes the thrill of young adult yearnings and passions with the cold, hard reality of life. How far would you go to protect the ones you love? That's the question Erin Kelly asks with The Poison Tree, and the enjoyment of her novel is discovering where that answer lies for each of her characters.

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