When asked to pick a novel for our bookclub, this debut from Erin Kelly was the first that came to mind. It has been on my wishlist since its release in 2010 and I remember reading the most wonderful reviews in the newspapers. Only a couple of the members of our bookclub would be avid thriller readers, and I knew this was a perfect opportunity to get this genre introduced again.
Karen is a language student in a run-of-the-mill college, her days are dull, her manner reserved and her boyfriend and flatmates are boring. She is extremely intelligent but lacks ambition. All this changes after a chance encounter with the enigmatic and bohemian Biba. A fellow student, but of a very different background, herself and her brother, Rex, live in a crumbling townhouse with an eclectic mix of characters. Their unusual lifestyle is frightening and alluring in equal measures and Karen quickly falls in love with the charm of Biba, Rex and the craziness of their home. Here begins a summer of cheap wine, recreational drugs and sexual adventure. Zipping around London in a decrepit Mini, parties and sleeping all day. The intense personality of Biba begins to seep into Karen's pores and they almost become one.
Inevitably, something goes wrong. The comings and goings through the open house are a magnet for disaster and Karen is caught in the middle of it. But can this summer be wiped out of her memory? Can the deaths of two people be brushed under the carpet? One chance encounter has led Karen into a world of deceit, lies and death.
From the beginning, the reader knows something big is going to happen. It is obviously something related to Biba and Karen, but the author uses such beautiful language and tone, that it doesn't really matter what happens. The main protagonists are so completely opposite that they could be from different generations. But they work so well together. One is calm, astute and reserved, the other is flighty, insecure and needy. The two girls spark off each other and the intense connection they have just oozes from the page. Rex, the older brother is harder to gauge. He adores his sister and watches over her, to an almost borderline addiction. When Karen is around, the trio struggle to gel and the atmosphere is not as relaxed as it should be. The writing of these scenes is dissected to fit the mood and makes the reader feel like a hidden spectator. The descriptions of the house and all its contents are trickled throughout the novel, which is part of the authors ingenious way of sucking us in to the story.
When the deaths occur, there may not be a huge intake-of-breath moment, but what happens afterwards is again teased out, page by page, chapter by chapter, until you can barely take anymore.
I can't believe it took me so long to get around to reading this amazing book. Beautifully crafted, with evocative narrative and clever balancing of detestable characters, placed alongside more sympathetic ones. The story hops off the page from the first chapter and pulls you into the hot, sticky summer in London that changed many lives forever. A powerful piece of fiction....
The Poison Tree is published by Hodder and is available in paperback and ebook format.