The Poison Tree

Erin Kelly’s The PoisonTree, isboth a chilly psychological thriller and a fevered depiction of youthfulinfatuation 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. Yetthe prevailing tone of the novel, like the voice of its narrator, is oddlydemure.

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

“If voices can be clear asbells, 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 tocrawl all over her. I wanted to be closer to her than her makeup.” Kellydepicts Karen’s sexual craving—and her class anxiety—far more successfully thanshe does the privileged world of Biba and her brother Rex, who too often soundlike Jazz Age loafers. But the engrossing plot is cunningly paced and, as thenovel shuttles back and forth between the crime at the novel’s heart and itsfinal consequences, Kelly reveals her unlikely heroine’s steely core.