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The Sirens of Suspense


It’s hard to tell the plot of Erin Kelly’s debut novel The Poison Tree without giving everything away. We first meet the protagonist, Karen, in the 1990s. She’s just started college with great academic success at little effort, but has yet to find any passion in her personal life, or her studies. She’s a girl going through the motions, but not really living. At least not until she meets Biba, an aspiring actress and free spirit in a manic, Lady Brett Ashley kind of way. Karen is immediately enthralled, and soon moves into the immense, dilapidated home in Highgate Biba shares with her older brother Rex, as well as an ever-changing group of colorful eccentrics. The idyll that Karen thought she found slowly begins to unravel at the seams, fueled in no small part by alcohol and drugs.  Through Karen’s naïve eyes we relive the summer that left her life forever changed, meanwhile the paranoid and damaged adult Karen hints at secrets yet to be revealed. In the final chapters (and epilogue) past and present merge with one final, earth-shattering secret. Reading The Poison Tree is rather like watching someone travel abroad for the first time . . . on the Titanic. Excitement and anticipation abound, new faces and places are discovered, romance blossoms—but the iceberg looms large on the horizon.

At first, I was concerned that The Poison Tree would turn out to be just another variation on the classic coming of age story, with a bit of The Sun Also Rises and House of Yes thrown in. Kelly, fortunately, doesn’t take the road often travelled. Though slow to start, just as you feel you’ve stumbled onto the surprise, she twists away and leads you down another path entirely—one that ends in a far different dénouement. However, despite the dead bodies (I’m not giving it away, this is mentioned in the jacket copy), The Poison Tree isn’t as much a crime or mystery novel as a suspenseful drama. Adult Karen’s hints at impending disaster lead the reader to wonder what life has in store for her, rather than a traditional mystery to be solved. For me, the biggest mystery is whether young Karen was really the innocent bystander she seemed to be, or hid things from herself, as well as us, all along.

Erin Kelly was born in London in 1976 and grew up in Essex. She read English at Warwick University and has been working as a journalist since 1998. She has written for newspapers including the The Sunday Times, The Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Express and magazines including Red, Psychologies, Marie Claire, Elle and Cosmopolitan. The Poison Tree is her first novel. She lives in London with her husband and daughter. Visit her at 

This review originally posted on The Poisoned Pen blog, read it and comment here:

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