I always watch each Richard and Judy, or TV Book Club, announcement of novels with interest. Some will instantly grab me; some leave me needing a little coaxing. ‘The Poison Tree’ by Erin Kelly was one of the latter cases when I saw it on the list last year. It looked like it could be an interesting thriller but I wasn’t sure it would be anything out of the ordinary. Twitter changed all that. You see though it may not prove to be the best form of picking an author, if I have a bit of banter with one on twitter, and they don’t try to sell me their book, I invariably want to read it because they seem lovely. Erin Kelly was one such author. I’d never met her but we have chattered about books, the weather and music and got on, so I thought I would probably like her book.
I really like a good crime novel and I really like a good thriller, I tend to forget that sometimes they don’t need to have any police involved (or rather on the periphery rather than as a lead character) and ‘The Poison Tree’ is one of those novels. The story centres on Karen Clarke and her time studying languages in a university in London in 1997 where she meets Biba. Biba isn’t quite like anyone that Karen has ever met before; she’s a young rather bohemian aspiring actress who spends most of her life partying quite the antithesis of Karen who is rather prim, proper and studious. This of course is all set to change as she befriends Biba when teaching her how to pronounce German authentically for a part. We know from the very start that somewhere in this particular summer something awful is going to happen, what that is we aren’t quite sure, but we know that it’s bad, life changing and involves Karen, Biba and Biba’s brother Rex (as there is an alternating storyline in the present which alludes to things that could have happened).
I don’t tend to get on with ‘student’ books set in those ‘wonderful university years’, this may possibly be because I didn’t experience them myself as I went into work rather than studying. However I found myself really enjoying ‘The Poison Tree’ and I think that is because Erin Kelly really focuses on characters. Biba in particular is incredibly readable, if rather annoying, because of her nature, she is mysterious and flighty and (possibly due to the past we discover she and Rex have) rather on the edge a lot of the time, she has a sense of darkness. The first hundred and fifty or so pages flew by, and then I had a mini wobble. Biba goes off the rails and it seemed a little unoriginal, she dates a druggy and starts living a rather dubious life all in the name of ‘role research’, that and her first role in a play seemed a little over drawn but I carried on and the pace came back.
I am not going to say what ‘the event’, which I what I shall call it, that we are leading up to is because I don’t want to spoil it, but I do need to mention it because it had an interesting affect on me as a reader. For when ‘the event’ happened I was rather non plussed. In part this was because it wasn’t what I was expecting and so completely wrong footed me, but also because I had this strange feeling of ‘oh… is that it?’ and I stopped reading to mull over my reaction. I wasn’t disappointed exactly, because Erin Kelly does so wrong foot you it is impressive, it just didn’t seem to gel for me. I should be honest and say this could be because I had felt so clever guessing what was coming or expecting some massive heightened event that this left me feeling a bit cheated, or less clever. I almost sulked. Yet I read on and soon Erin Kelly saved it again (though I wonder if she ever lost it and with the alternating present storyline was actually wanting the reader to have the complete wrong idea) as in the last 50 or so pages she throws in some twists one of which I had hazarded at and was proved right (and so felt clever again) and two which genuinely threw me and, to coin a cliché, thrilled me. I actually had to speed read the last twenty pages in a panic simply desperate to know how it would all unfold.
So overall I liked ‘The Poison Tree’ and I am glad I gave it a whirl. I want to add the clichéd review comment of ‘this shows a promising new voice’ because a) it does and b) when this novel had me gripped it really had me gripped. I liked the evocation of 1990’s London, the mention of the Spice Girls took me right back, and the fact that Kelly’s characters are so well drawn that when things do have a small lull in the middle you read on because you want to know more about them. In a way that’s why you read on after ‘the event’ and get those final surprising twists and turns. I was an enjoyable and escapist read and at some point I will try her follow up novel, this isn’t a series by the way, ‘The Sick Rose’ (and I am not just saying that as she is a good chatting companion on Twitter, i don’t even think she knows I read the book).
Has anyone else read ‘The Poison Tree’? If so what did you think? What about ‘The Sick Rose’?