The Poison Tree

Erin Kelly's The Poison Tree, is both a chilly psychological thriller and a fevered depiction of youthful infatuation and excess. This is, after all, London in the 1990s. There is sex, romantic and sordid. There are drugs. There is booze. There is violence. Yet the prevailing tone of the novel, like the voice of its narrator, is oddly demure.


"I held my life loosely in my hands," Karen, the young heroine, melodramatically declares, "unaware that I was about to relinquish my grip." A gifted linguistics student and the only child of working-class parents, Karen is a cautious, slightly drab heroine who would be equally at home in a Daphne du Maurier novel. Her drama occurs not in the lavish environs of an estate like Manderley, however, but in a rundown London townhouse where she embraces a bohemian life centered on the entrancing, maddening figure of a young woman named Biba.


"If voices can be clear as bells, hers was," Karen recalls of first meeting Biba, "the small, silver kind you use to summon servants, not the heavy iron church sort." Later, her tongue loosened by dope and by lust, Karen confesses, "I wanted to crawl all over her. I wanted to be closer to her than her makeup." Kelly depicts Karen's sexual craving—and her class anxiety—far more successfully than she does the privileged world of Biba and her brother Rex, who too often sound like Jazz Age loafers. But the engrossing plot is cunningly paced and, as the novel shuttles back and forth between the crime at the novel's heart and its final consequences, Kelly reveals her unlikely heroine's steely core.

July 23: Jessica Mitford died on this day in 1996.

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