One of my all-time favourite books! You may have heard of it, as into a hideous ITV drama a few years ago which was a total mess. I do recommend giving it a read as it is truly gripping and thought-provoking.
Like the bestseller Gone Girl, The Poison Tree has two narratives, this one flicks between the past (Karen aged 21) in the summer of 1997; and the present (Karen aged 31) when her partner Rex comes out of jail for murder.
Karen at aged 21, is a come-of-age story, about finally finding out who you are and who you want to be. She’s graduating university a straight lace, straight-A student who has never really lived and feels like she is missing out on what the world has to offer.
Until she meets the bohemian and intoxicating Biba. Biba takes Karen under her wing and shows her all the fun things in life Karen has been missing. Biba is everything Karen wants to be, and she is excited about her new friendship with the coolest person she’s ever met. I think most girls can relate to when you were young and you made a friend that was cooler than you were and how that made you feel. Well, that’s Karen’s relationship with Biba, who comes across as the real protagonist while Karen is the narrator. Karen also falls for Biba’s brother Rex, who is the protector of both girls.
After that summer with Biba, Karen aged 31, is now a controlling and paranoid woman scared for the safety of Rex, and their beloved daughter Alice. The summer with ~Biba ended with Rex going to jail and now 10 years later he’s out and trying to start a new life with Karen and Alice. But Karen fears someone is after them, watching the house, calling them at home. Karen is determined to find out who it is to prevent them from ruining her family, but she also has to reconnect to Rex have 10 years apart, and readjust to life with him.
For me, I found it completely gripping! Both past and present are so interweaved and secrets revealed in the present are answered in the past. I love how nothing is explained until much later in the book, to keep you guessing and trying to figure it out. The first chapter says Rex comes out of jail, but why? Who died? What is the relevance of X? Why is Y so important? And the ending is electric! The book’s ambiguous title is explained on the last page of the book, which is a kind of a spoiler, but it’s called that for a very good reason. SPOILERS on the ending can be read here.
Critics of the book have dissed Biba’s character as annoying and over the top and have said it’s unrealistic that Karen would become such close friends with her over the course of a few months. But I completely disagree, this is a story that time in your life where the real world is out there and the world is full of potential. All of the characters at the start are so hopeful for a future, that they are doomed never to have. And along with this youthful optimism is the intense friendships that are formed that feel like they will last forever, but that are also doomed. I have had friendships like that in my late teens, where you meet are instantly best friends and think you’ll be friends forever, but as you get older you realise it was just for that brief time in your life.
My only real disappointment in the novel was the character of Rex. He’s a nice enough guy but is not as well rounded and as detailed as the girls. In the ’97 he comes across and lazy, bland and seems there just to be Karen’s love interest. It would have been good if he had been a prejudged by the reader, as a bad boy who had gone to prison, who actually turned out to be nicest character in the book and a really good person.
I’ve read a few more of Erin Kelly’s novel since The Poison Tree which I just haven’t enjoyed as much. Anyone who enjoyed Gone Girl and who is interested in character driven thrillers this is definitely one to check out.
lots of love