Through the framing story, the readers know from the beginning of The Poison Tree that Something Horrid has Happened to the narrator–she’s picking her husband up from his release from prison; he’s spent ten years in jail for something he didn’t do, or anyway isn’t wholly responsible for. For the weeks leading up to Rex’s release, Karen’s had hangup phantom harassment calls…not to mention the stranger in sunglasses parked outside her cottage at all hours of the night or day. To cap things off, there’s an obscure secret about Alice’s birth; Karen is worried that her daughter may be taken from her custody. None of this is mentioned to Rex, however. Karen and Alice struggle to fit Rex back into a life and a cottage that hasn’t included him physically since before Alice’s birth, nor his life their presence.
The phone calls and the anonymous observer circle closer, and through flashbacks, we the readers begin discovering what Karen’s past history is. In her senior year of college in London, Karen is considering her options. Academically bright, she’s got the opportunity to move farther up and away from her family’s middle-class with pretensions background; her linguistics ability has gotten her a spot in a graduate program in Switzerland. In the summer between her graduation and her continuation on to graduate school, her housemates decide, as a group, to go work on the estate of one of their relatives, leaving Karen as de facto house sitter while they’re gone. Karen, at a loose end, is in search of something to both keep her occupied and to earn some money towards her graduate school expenses, falls in with another student, Biba Capel, who is working towards becoming an actress and needs to learn German pronunciation for a role intended for her student portfolio.
Biba, and her brother Rex, suck the innocent and naive Karen into the maelstrom of their emotionally, familial and financially complex life with an almost frighteningly rapid pace. They’re living in a house the size of which Karen cannot imagine–a multi-story, single family dwelling, complete with servants’ quarters in the basement, of a size which would be divided up into multiple apartments for the people that Karen has associated with thus far. Drugs abound. Liquor flows freely. Relationships shift like quicksand and are rarely formalized with so much as an engagement. All this is intoxicating (aside from the chemical effects of what they may be ingesting) to the ignorant Karen, who has until now lived a staid and more than slightly repressed life in the suburbs with her lower-middle-class parents. She is enthralled by and fascinated with her new BFF, Biba, and with Rex, and with all their friends…until the father and stepmother return to Rex and Biba’s lives. Things spiral downward from there until Rex, Karen and Biba are involved in not one but two deaths relating to their activities and the house in which they’ve been living.
While it’s a reasonably well-written book, there are a few plot holes that bothered me. While it’s true that the police and courts give a considerable amount of credence to a heartfelt confession from someone who’s backed up by corroborating witnesses AND whose fingerprints are on the gun used in the murder, I don’t recall much investigation into the crime on the part of the law. While I acknowledge that’s not the point of the book–it’s a relationship book rather than a police procedural–I’m left with a few questions. Why did the father not do anything with the house he owned in London? I can see leaving it vacant for a short time, but to be so oblivious to the condition of a valuable property, simply by virtue of its location a urban area with sky high property values, that you do not know there are squatters on the property for months and even years? Nope, don’t believe it. Would someone overlook a brownstone in the Upper East Side? A house in Edgeware? Didn’t think you’d believe it either!
I’m still not entirely sure what to make of the ending, but am reluctant to go into why for fear of giving away spoilers; all I’ll say is that this is either bad plotting or one heck of a twist: who’s the naif and who the manipulative ****? Self-absorbed to the point of blowing off one’s friends and relatives? Consciously pushing others’ buttons to get what one wants? Given it’s told from Karen’s perspective, she’s going to come off sympathetic, but having slept on it, I’m not so sure. Biba and Karen could fit either role. Not bad for a debut novel, but I’ll wait for the author’s subsequent novels before declaring this an author worth watching. I’ve read rather a lot of “brilliant first novels” in the past eighteen months and before to think otherwise.