The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly

One of the most gripping novels I have read this year. Prepare for Kelly to become master of your imagination.

Something about the cover, blurb and title of this book has excited me ever since I saw it appear on the Richard and Judy Summer reading list this year. The offer of scandal and mystery proving all too tempting. In an unprecedented reading spree I flew through the delectable pages of Erin Kelly’s debut novel this weekend, and now I can’t wait to tell you all about it.

When the reticent, straight laced Karen meets the wild, bohemian and instantly fabulous Biba at a college notice board she is immediately captivated and infatuated by the energy and free spiritedness of this young, beautiful aspiring actress. For years Karen has done exactly what is expected of her, got the right grades, gone to the best college, dated the ‘perfect’ boyfriend. And yet something always felt missing. Karen has lived in a state of apathy and the sudden rush of Biba into her life gives her a taste of excitement, rousing her from her dull and structured life.

The excitement that Karen feels upon meeting Biba, and her subsequent need to be a part of her life is contagious and I found myself urging Karen to seek Biba out, to immerse herself in her world. On the cusp of her first exciting, carefree and reckless summer Karen bubbles with anticipation for the long, hedonistic months ahead, and the feeling electrifies the novel. But just how much will this perfect summer cost Karen? Can she really lose her innocence and inhibitions without anyone getting hurt?

From the very first pages Kelly plants a seed of doubt, she nourishes it with mysterious hints to a tragic accident and lost lives. Cryptic clues pile on top of ominous suggestions; prepare to be on the edge of your seat throughout this novel.

I wont give away too much of this novel, I don’t want to spoil it for a first time reader, especially since I felt a deep sadness upon finishing it as I realized I was now robbed of ever reading it with fresh eyes. But needless to say from start to finish it flows with a sense of intrigue, crackles with anticipation and delights with a heightened sense of drama.

After Karen’s first chance encounter with Biba an instantaneous friendship is sparked and soon Karen is leaving her stringent, stuffy home which she shares with her overtly organized flat mates to live in the eccentric, messy but wonderfully captivating home of Biba and her brother Rex. A crumbling town house which defecates the perfectly manicured homes lining the rest of the affluent street in Highgate. But this is exactly what attracts Karen, she craves a life far removed from the order and predictability that she has become accustomed to.

Abandoning her previous home Karen encapsulates the innocence and vulnerability of someone desperate to shake off her shackles, of course this indeed leaves her blind to the dangers around her; the dangers that Kelly slowly and tantalizingly pertains to. Desperate to immerse herself in the abandon of Biba’s world Karen soon finds herself falling into a family whose past is as murky and deeply rooted in obscurity. But all of this must be learnt along the way and Karen moves swiftly in, without ever looking back.

Kelly adds an extra edge of suspension to the novel in the form of her fleeting narrative which switches from past to present. In the past we learn about the events that shaped that tragic summer spent in Highgate, in the present we join Karen as she lives her life ten years on in Surrey. She describes her life as being entirely different in the present, indeed it is clear how deeply that irrevocable summer has shaped the woman she is now. Cagey, protective and always afraid and looking over her shoulder, but what is she afraid of? And even more mysteriously, Karen is now living with Rex, Biba’s older brother; the taciturn and overly protecting man that at first threatened to spoil the reckless fun that she hoped would shape her summer.

The tension of the novel boils as we switch back and forth in time. Questions piling up along the way, why has Rex being in prison, how did he and Karen end up marrying and having a child together. What happened that summer and why is Biba missing from the present day?

As the story wears on the truth begins to reveal itself only for more clandestine secrets to present themselves. One thing is for sure Rex surely seems to know the capabilities of Biba’s wild abandon and he alone fears the consequences of her actions. When Biba brings home Guy an arrogant drug dealer with a murky  background both Rex and Karen find themselves fearing the worst. What will this trouble maker do to the perfect equilibrium that Karen has just so recently found?

When I finished this book I was literally left quite speechless, a book hugging moment might have been a little inappropriate given the dark nature of the novel, but I loved it all the same. Now I’m desperate to try her next novel the Sick Rose. if Kelly can weave the same magic on me as she did in The Poison Tree then I think I will have found a new favourite author.

Have you read either The Poison Tree or The Sick Rose? If so what did you think? Or have you heard of this book but haven’t quite got round to reading it yet, but want to? Either way I would love to hear all of your thoughts.