I was hoping that I was in for a good read at the very least and quietly praying that I wasn't in for a major disappointment. The reviews that I (and clearly all the other library borrowers) had read were excellent and the fact that no one seemed to be giving up on it after a day or so boded well too. But, you know what it's like. You get yourself all worked up about a book and then for some reason it just doesn't live up to all the hype.
Well, not in this case.
The Poison Tree is a psychological thriller more in the style of Barbara Vane than the crime fiction which makes up the bulk of my relaxation reading. So, perhaps I'm not the best person to judge its worth, not enough experience in the field. But I think this is probably the best crafted book I've read so far this year and certainly one that I would recommend without hesitation.
Karen is coming to the end of her degree course at Queen Charlotte's College in London where she is expected to take an outstanding first and move on to one of the many academic opportunities that are being offered to her. (It is 1997, exceptional students were still being fought over rather than having to fight to get themselves noticed!) During her time in London, working class Karen has shared a house and life style with three much more well-heeled and extremely orthodox colleagues and has definitely missed out on the rather more 'dissolute' activities you might expect a student to have indulged in. As their time at University draws to a close, however, the other members of the household and Karen's decidedly upperclass boyfriend all make it clear that relationships which may have been acceptable in the world of study are not going to continue beyond graduation and, at a loose end for companionship, Karen bumps into Biba, a drama student in the same College. Her life will never be the same again.
Biba lives in a derelict old Highgate house with her brother Rex and a stream of extremely unorthodox lodgers and, as a result, of this chance encounter, Karen's final summer as a student is spent experiencing many of the features of a more typical student existence that she has previously missed out on. While she becomes Rex's lover in a physical sense, it is the relationship between herself and Biba that is far more important to her and her feelings for the young actress grow until they border on the obsessive.
And then something happens. Something that results in Rex spending the next ten years in prison, while Karen, giving up any notion of an academic career is left to bring up baby Alice on her own.
I'm not giving anything away by saying this because one of the features of the book that I like the most is the integral manner in which Kelly interweaves the present with the past. We know from the beginning, as we wait for Rex's release, what he has been imprison for and we know too that there is a question as to the veracity of the verdict. What we are not certain about is the reason that verdict is being called into question and it is that which slowly Kelly reveals to us in a way which keeps you guessing without ever making you feel as if you have been fed false information or misdirected in any way whatsoever.
Kelly clearly has a remarkable gift for plotting, but she is also excellent at drawing character. There are some wonderful yet thoroughly believable creations amongst the lodgers who inhabit the house in Highgate, but she is also brilliant in her portrayal of the main characters. In particular the portrait of Biba, one of the most selfish and self-centred people I've ever encountered in literature, rings completely true. Her final appearance might have seemed unlikely at least in a less able writer's hands but here it was note perfect. I could happily have rung the woman's neck with my own hands.
Erin Kelly is going to join that short list of writers whose books I automatically read as soon as I can get hold of them. She has a second novel, The Sick Rose, coming out in June and I'm off right this minute to harass the library because they don't have it on pre-order. I may even have to talk to the bank manager and buy my own copy.