Blair's Reviews > The Poison Tree

The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly
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The Poison Tree had been on my Amazon wishlist for months, and this sunny weekend I finally decided to treat myself to it. I was happy to find that, true to my expectations, it was hugely readable, so much that I'd finished it within 24 hours of my purchase. The book is divided up into two stories, flipping back and forth between the long, hot summer of 1997 and the present day. Both are narrated by Karen; in the 1997 story, she is a naive 20-year-old and, having recently finished her degree, becomes entangled with the decadent, overdramatic Biba Capel and her older, more reserved brother Rex. In the present-day plotline, we find Karen in her early thirties, living in a small country village with her nine-year-old daughter Alice, and adjusting to a new life with Rex, who has just been released from a long stint in prison (this isn't a spoiler, we learn it very early on). The rest of the book brings the two strands together, exploring exactly what happened in that fateful summer to lead to Rex's incarceration and Karen's paranoia - which, it quickly becomes clear, now dominates her life.

The 1997 sections of the book, I absolutely loved. The atmosphere of this cloying, dreamlike summer is conjured with such flair; Karen's passion for Biba and Rex's lifestyle, how she falls in love with the two siblings and their romantic, ramshackle house, her transition from straight-laced student to companion of the hedonistic Biba and the feelings of power, release and abandon this gives her. The whole thing seems desperately romantic and utterly enchanting; I could easily appreciate how thoroughly Karen was drawn into the Capels' world because, as a reader, I was consumed by it too. Even when I put the book down, images of chaotic house parties, Highgate streets and sweltering summer days were so vividly imprinted on my mind I felt like I'd been there. I'm sure anyone of my generation will appreciate the way in which Kelly accurately portrays a time not long past and yet suffuses it with great nostalgia. I loved Karen, too; she's very believable and the narrative really gets under the character's skin. She's a self-confessed unremarkable girl who's had a sheltered existence, cosseted by a trio of vacuous friends and an equally boring boyfriend throughout university, and her revelatory entrance into a life where she no longer feels 'invisible' is wonderfully evoked. While there are some slightly irritating inconsistencies and mistakes (such as when Karen is given her first ecstasy tablet, has a wonderful time partying all night and then has absolutely no comedown?!), the overall effect is so arresting that small errors don't really dent its power.

The present-day story is, however, much weaker. It has all the hallmarks of those chick-lit-cum-thriller books that seem to be so popular these days - told in present tense, there's a first-person female narrator, secrets involving a crime/murder, usually a child or family involved somewhere, the woman will do ANYTHING TO PROTECT HER FAMILY, etc. I don't really like this genre and found the style a turn-off; I think present tense is quite difficult to pull off effectively and, while I can understand that it made sense to differentiate the past from the present in this way, it didn't work for me. I can also understand why Karen's character was different, having been altered as a result of all she'd experienced, but I'm afraid I found this version of her quite dull. Whenever one of the present-day segments popped up I found myself comparatively bored, desperate to get back to the past; they seemed like unwanted interruptions in an otherwise flawless narrative. They didn't ring entirely true, either - I wasn't convinced that after so much time in prison, Rex would move straight into Karen's home and start playing happy families with a daughter he'd only previously encountered through short visits every few months. Crucially, I also disliked the ending. Where I had related to the younger Karen so much, I found the older version's final actions impossible to sympathise with.

For me, this is a book of two halves - one half I consider worthy of five stars, the other is more like three (no prizes for guessing which is which), hence the overall rating of four. I hope that if Erin Kelly writes anything else, she draws on the original, fascinating portrayal of human relationships and new experiences demonstrated in the past segments of this novel, rather than the much more pedestrian and uninteresting (if perhaps more likely to shift units...) thriller element represented by the present segments.
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message 1: by C (new) - rated it 4 stars

C Lasseter Excellent review. I also found the present-day portions of the book boring, and couldn't wait to get back in time again. I don't think either Rex or Guy were fleshed out well enough, either. Guy became a crucial character in the book, a character you want to either love or hate, but I didn't get to know him enough to really pass judgment on him. The scene were he was pouting after his mum called was out of place in this book. It was silly and juvenile. I'd have liked Rex's character to be a little more strong, confident and charismatic. He was on the sappy side, so I didn't connect with him.


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