Review: Erin Kelly's intoxicating 'Poison Tree'

Author Erin Kelly.
Author Erin Kelly. (Viking Penguin)
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By Maureen Corrigan
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 9, 2011; 5:39 PM


By Erin Kelly.

Pamela Dorman/Viking. 322 pp. $26.95

Voice-overs are always bad news, aren't they? Think of poor Joe Gillis at the opening of Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard," preposterously yakking away to the audience as he floats facedown in Norma Desmond's swimming pool, lifeless as a waterlogged bandage. Or Mildred Pierce, in the eponymous novel and movie, recalling, with chilly fatalism, her original sin of yearning to break free of that dinky bungalow kitchen in Glendale, Calif. Or even Nick Carraway, in the very first pages of "The Great Gatsby," which is supposed to be our soaring Great American Novel, wistfully letting us know that everything he's about to tell us has already ended in disillusionment and death. Voice-overs - be they literary or cinematic - mean the finale is preordained, all exit doors locked.

In its intensity and overwhelming sense of loss, the voice-over that opens Erin Kelly's terrific first suspense novel, "The Poison Tree," is most directly reminiscent of the unnamed narrator of Daphne du Maurier's "Rebecca" ("Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again . . . "). Karen Clarke, like du Maurier's heroine, is a nice person who has had terrible things happen to her because of a Bad Girl who wouldn't play fair and insisted on scooping up all the men and attention. But just as "Rebecca" has enthralled generations of female readers with its story of a mousey maiden's triumph over her glamorous beyond-the-grave rival, "The Poison Tree" also offers the twisted pleasures of vengeance within its eerie narrative.

Forlorn Karen first meets her fate in the form of a charismatic schoolmate named Biba Capel when the two students stumble upon each other in the dreary halls of Queen Charlotte's College in London. Biba is a fledgling actress with the silvery voice of a BBC announcer and a signature look that turns heads. As Karen reminisces: "It was the summer when the Spice Girls were inescapable; most of the university's female students had declared a fashion allegiance to one or other of the singers, decking themselves out like clowns or children or girls who worked at a perfume counter. The girl before me appeared to be dressed like all five of them at once." Biba needs help mastering a German accent for a play. Karen is a whiz at languages; in fact, she's a shoe-in to be awarded a fellowship to pursue a PhD at a more prestigious university when Biba ensnares Karen with her dazzling smile. There is clearly a romantic element to Karen's infatuation with Biba, but Karen, with the benefit of hindsight, insists: "It wasn't until years later that I realized it wasn't about sex. It was affection and confusion, the thrill of peer acceptance at last."

In no time, Karen is happily swallowed up by the bohemian goings-on that Biba and her older brother, Rex, orchestrate in a tumbledown mansion in Highgate (Manderley?). Karen and Rex become lovers, and a glorious summer passes in a haze of sex and red wine and loud parties that tumble out into the gnarly garden behind the house. The trio act like erotic children abandoned in the wild - an impression heightened by the fact that the Capels' mother is dead and their father, a famous film mogul, has remarried and wants nothing to do with them. Two-thirds of the way through this tale, when passions erupt into violence, a reader realizes that the father, though heartless, may have also been wise.

"The Poison Tree" is graced with a distinctly druggy power. Kelly burrows deep into Karen's young life and vividly dramatizes the anxiety of an isolated first-generation college student who's out of her league in terms of looks and polish. When Biba appears and offers a mishmash of a family for Karen to join, the euphoria of belonging sweeps all caution out to sea. Slowly, the awareness that all is not right with Rex and Biba intrudes into Karen's reluctant brain; but her yearning to preserve the Edenic household fatally overrides her good sense. Narrating the grisly events of that summer some 10 years later, Karen is a different person: resigned and wary. But she is right to look over her shoulder, to start at the slightest creak on the staircase. The worst isn't quite behind her; in fact, a horror materializes that Karen doesn't even know she should fear, reaching out its hands to grab what's most dear.

In "The Poison Tree," Kelly gives readers a compelling creeper that intelligently invokes the conventions of the Gothic and plays within the doom-laden confines of the voice-over. More please, Ms. Kelly! Quickly!

Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air."

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