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The Poison Tree: Book review

Reviewed by's Melanie Scott

The title of Erin Kelly's debut novel The Poison Tree is taken from William Blake's poem about friends, enemies and the venomous nature of repressed resentment. 

It's a fitting metaphor for the journey of narrator, shy and studious Karen, whose life is changed forever after an idyllic summer that ends in tragedy.

It's the height of the London summer in 1997 and Karen has a chance meeting with the glamorous and carefree Biba, an aspiring actress.

Karen is captivated by Biba and very soon she's drawn into her bohemian lifestyle, moving into the family's rundown Highgate mansion with Biba and her brother Rex.

But the cosy trio are torn apart by a shocking incident which leaves two people dead...

The Poison Tree is told in parallel, flashing back between Karen's life present day and the events leading up to the tragedy. Revolving around the narrator, each time line is markedly different.

Karen's recollections about her relationship with Biba and Rex are filled with bittersweet nostalgia. Reminiscent of classics like Edith Wharton's Brideshead Revisited or Donna Tartt's A Secret History, Karen is the outsider who becomes part of something special for a brief period in time.

In Karen's present day, she's a changed woman, haunted by a secret crime and the spectre of her old friend. These flash-forwards to her current life are much closer in tone to your classic psychological thriller.

But The Poison Tree is subtler than a lot of suspense novels, focusing more on the complex tangle of family and relationships than any crimes committed.  

It's slow paced at first as Kelly carefully builds the tension. Both timelines slowly reveal themselves as the novel builds to a shocking climax you won't see coming. 

Carefully crafted and suspenseful, The Poison Tree is an excellent debut from Erin Kelly.

Rating: 8/10

The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly
Hachette (Hodder)
RRP: $34.99
Available: Now