The cover of Erin Kelly’s The Poison Tree is stunning, with its web of black branches against a blood red background. It conveys a sense of ominousness, daring me to peek inside and unravel its mysteries. Turns out Tree shelters deep, dark secrets all right but unfortunately I didn’t care much for the characters harboring them.
The story moves back and forth between the present—when Karen picks up her former lover Rex from prison after he’s served ten years for a double murder—and 1997, when the killings took place. We see Rex readjusting to life on the outside with Karen and their little girl while we gradually learn why he went inside in the first place. And Karen apparently has a giant secret that is harder to keep after Rex’s release.
I was a little surprised by one plot twist but not so much by the big final one because it was the only possible explanation for a series of mysterious incidents. And once that secret was revealed, there was only one way it could have been dealt with so the ending was not as shocking as the author perhaps intended.
Kelly paints vivid pictures of the London setting, both in the present and the past, but I found the three lead characters inaccessible. The three friends engaged in a hedonistic lifestyle in their youth so it’s no wonder they encountered such troubles. Biba is an irresponsible, self-serving party girl enabled by her brother, Rex. He indulges her out of guilt for perceived wrongs he committed during their wretched childhood, but at some point people need to grow up and stop using their past as an excuse for destructive behavior.
As for Karen, it’s understandable why she might be drawn to Rex and Biba—they’re exotic to her goody-two-shoes sensibilities—but after she’s repeatedly taken advantage of and treated like a doormat by Biba, I couldn’t fathom why she continued to put up with it. I lost my patience and sympathy for her after a while because people who choose to drink from the poisoned cup have to deal with the consequences.
Nerd verdict: Not-so-potent Poison