Book Quote:

“For I had a guilty secret—or what felt like one at the time, before I knew what guilt and secrecy really felt like.”

Book Review:

Review by Guy Savage  (JAN 10, 2011)

The Poison Tree, the debut novel from British author Erin Kelly, begins with a young woman named Karen driving her child, nine-year-old Alice to pick up husband Rex. This may sound like a fairly routine domestic errand, but the difference here is that Rex has just been released from prison after serving 10 years for murder. The novel’s first chapter is a window into the delicacy of a fractured family’s difficult reunion as parenting roles shift to a thinly structured “normalcy.” The underlying question is why was Rex in prison for murder? Just what happened to put Rex behind bars is slowly doled out to the reader as first-person narrator Karen goes back to the mid 90s when she was a university student at Queen Charlotte’s College and met the intriguing, free-spirit, budding actress Biba and her brother Rex.

Flashback to Karen as a quiet introverted student stuck in a rooming arrangement she dislikes. She’s particularly vulnerable after being dumped by boorish boyfriend Simon–a humiliating move her roommates know about before she does. In addition, university life isn’t what Karen expected, and it’s here that we get the signals of trouble. Her expectations don’t match reality, so she yearns for something to happen. Biba, as it turns out, is the “something,” and she represents the excitement that Karen is not going to find in the classroom. The chance meeting with the glamorous Biba changes Karen’s life–not for the better as it turns out. Karen is introduced to a bohemian lifestyle as she attends parties, experiments with drugs and soon moves in to the home shared by “orphans” Biba and Rex. The moment Biba meets Karen, some unspoken transaction takes place, and it’s clear that Biba is the sort of person who doesn’t understand the meaning of boundaries:

“I don’t understand why you don’t want to act. Because whatever happens to you, however awful it is, or even wonderful experiences, you can get through it by thinking, hold on to this, remember what it felt like, I can use that one day. You can’t be a truly brilliant actor if you’ve had no life. That’s why I want to do everything, taste everyone. Don’t you see? Because the more reserves I have to draw on the more I can do as an actress. In fact…” self-awareness seemed to strike, and she put on a pompous, gravelly voice, “one owes it to one’s craft to live an extraordinary life and sensational life.” I laughed, relieved that she’d broken her own tension, and saw my opportunity to change the subject. I had to pull this conversation down from the sky if I was going to contribute to it.

Karen is a blank screen, and so while it’s perfectly clear that she’s impressionable and easy to lead astray, she’s also not a particularly interesting character. There’s a romanticism in Karen that fails to be ignited by her studies, and I failed to be ignited by Karen. Some of this can be attributed to her early comment that she feels “initial disappointment at not being able to waft through quads in crinoline.”

Karen, Biba and Rex, appear to be parts of a whole–splintered characters who incubate disaster when conjoined by fate or circumstance (I’m thinking murderers Leopold and Loeb here or serial killers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley). So once the unhealthy relationship between these three characters charges up, it’s not difficult to guess where this is going. A very creepy atmosphere rapidly develops and is seems inevitable that it will end badly.

The novel reminds me very much of Ruth Rendell’s (writing as Barbara Vine) The Fatal Inversion, but without the same degree of tension. Unfortunately the novel is slow to heat up, and although the story, doled out in chunks by Karen, should be a device that builds suspense, the opposite is true.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 11 readers
PUBLISHER: Pamela Dorman Books (January 6, 2011)
REVIEWER: Guy Savage
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt

Matala by Craig Holden


January 10, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Debut Novel, Mystery/Suspense, Psychological Suspense, Reading Guide, United Kingdom

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