The Poison Tree – Erin Kelly

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.

Hodder Books, paperback, 2011, fiction, 368 pages, from my personal TBR

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’?


Filed under Erin Kelly, Hodder & Stoughton, Review

11 responses to “The Poison Tree – Erin Kelly

  1. Great review Simon, I have been waiting to see what you thought of this. I started it last night as when I saw you were giving it a go it seemed my sort of book. Bohemia and bohemian characters always fascinate me.

    • Thanks Paul. I liked Biba’s character, if not her personality, a lot. Erin Kelly’s characterisation is very good. I like thrillers and am glad I read this one because it was quite different from what I would normally go for.

  2. This one’s completely passed me by, I know I must have read reviews of it because I recognise the book. I probably looked at it and thought like you that it didn’t sound anything amazing. Maybe her marketing person needs a poke with a stick but then R&J is probably good enough!

    • It’s not that it didn’t sound like it wouldnt be anything special, more that it might not float my boat. I was glad I read it, especially actually the fact that it has really made me think about myself as a reader and my response to ‘the event’.

  3. Annabel (gaskella)

    This is one I kept picking up and putting down again, couldn’t make my mind up, but I like twisty thrillers, so maybe next time I see it …

    • The last few twists really made the book for me Annabel. I would have come away thinking it was ‘alright’ because of the great characters but the whole ‘event’ thing would have left me feeling a bit miffed if I am honest. Its those twists that made me think ‘aha this story has more than one story to it’.

  4. I liked your comment about instinctively liking authors who have a bit of a banter and don’t try to thrust their book at you on Twitter! In my brief 2-3 weeks on Twitter, I have unfollowed a number of authors who had 20 tweets in one hour about their forthcoming book and nothing else!
    This sounds like an interesting read, thanks for pointing it out to us!

    • It might not be the best way of choosing books but it works for me. I just liked chatting to Erin about music or tv we had both seen or listened to, I thought we would get on and indeed we do and I got on with her book.

      I dont mind authors mentioning their books once or twice on twitter, after all I post links to my posts when they go live and retweet about the podcast, but when all you see is them discussing their books or retweeting all the praise they read about themselves I just think ‘oh please’.

  5. Janette

    hi simon, you will be pleased to know your review intrigued me so much that I ventured to download this – yes yes I know please please don’t be mad but the only way I can read a book is when I am feeding oscar – discovered early on I couldn’t hold a paper/hardback with one hand and missed reading so much I had to admit defeat and get an android device – was e-books or nothing! poor baby has been force fed over the last 24 hours in order to give me the chance to keep reading !! I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this – I thought I might get weary at first as Karen a little too straight laced for comfort but Erin created a compelling character in Biba and like Karen I became rather enthralled by her and just wanted to know more! I agree she kept the pace well and provided just enough twists and turns so as not to be too contrived. My only disappointment, despite trying so hard not too, was that I did anticipate what would happen, – perhaps this a testament to Erin’s storytelling and the subtle hints written throughout which provided clues to the ultimate finale. Anyway cheers for featuring it as I was struggling to find something to whet the appetite and it did just the trick for a sleep deprived mum! hope all is well with you and hopefully see you at book group in the near future once I have sussed how to get baby to sleep through the night!

    • Thank you for taking the time to comment especially with you hands full. I have actually just emailed you about visiting as it has been too long frankly.

      In the interim, lets discuss the book (and I am forgiving you the ebook madness and just pretending you never wrote that – you have gone to the dark side but sleepless nights can do this)… I think Biba is a brilliantly mesmerising and yet rather awful character and you are completely drawn in as Karen is. Did you guess the ‘event’ or did you guess the final few twists and turns?

  6. Pingback: My 2012 reading journey so far… | Barely Read

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