What starts out as a seemingly ordinary novel about a young woman who makes a fascinating, exotic new friend builds slowly to the macabre in The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly. This is not a traditional mystery, but more the foreboding story of how several characters’ lives are changed irrevocably by the incidents of a careless summer in 1993.
In a story that begins ten years before the novel’s present, Karen Clarke is a naive but high-achieving linguistics student who is soon to graduate from a college in London. Her academic success has more to do with a natural ability to learn languages than application, and she finds herself unable to decide what to do with her life. After being very focused for years, she is inclined to let her near-term future be decided by fate.
One afternoon near the end of the term she meets the flamboyant, charismatic Biba Capel and is immediately captivated by her and drawn into her circle. Biba lives in a sprawling, ramshackle house with her brother Rex and other assorted people, and they spend most of their time partying.
The novel’s present day begins with Karen picking up her husband, Rex Capel, from prison, where he has served 10 years for murder. With her is their ten-year-old daughter Alice. Karen has been supporting her small family, economically and emotionally, for years, and knows she must continue to do so, as Rex will find it difficult to get work. She is very protective of Rex and Alice and afraid their new life will be ruined if people learn about their past.
How Karen goes from the carefree life she adopts that summer—which she spends with a bunch of irresponsible young people partying all night and sleeping all day—to the fearful present involves the Capels’ tragic history. As she learns about this history and learns more about her friend, she is drawn into tragedy.
Well written and absorbing, the book slowly builds from normalcy to a sense of dread.