Karen is a straight-laced, play by the rules, do well in school university student in London, England in 1997, when she meets Biba. Biba enthralls Karen from the first time they meet. Her bohemian lifestyle, the parties, the drugs and Biba's attentions finally make Karen feel like she is living, not existing. She moves in with Biba and her brother Rex into their crumbling mansion that summer.
"I have spent a lot of time since then, at least an hour a day, wondering where the cutoff point was in the chain of events that led me to where we all are - or aren't - today. my life, had it continued along its predicted trajectory, would have been unrecognizable. No Alice. No Rex. But if I'm honest with myself, my fate, and hers, and the fate of the others, was sealed the second I first saw her."
The narrative switches to 10 years in the future. Karen and her daughter Alice have just picked up their husband and father Rex, newly released from prison. As they attempt to pick up the pieces of their relationship and live a 'normal' life, we learn the story of what lead to Rex's incarceration.
What happened between that initial meeting and where Karen's life is now is charted back and forth. This initially happens in alternating chapters, but as the book progresses it disconcertingly happens within the same paragraph numerous times, leading to a very disjointed read at times. I did feel a little cheated as we knew the beginning of the story as well as the end - all that needed filling in were the details. I prefer a mystery that unfolds in a more linear fashion.
Kelly employs a lot, repeat, a lot of foreshadowing in her writing. At first this is tantalizing and adds to the atmospheric tone of the book. By the midway point though, I was growing tired of it appearing at the end of almost every chapter.
I think Kelly has crafted a strong debut. I did enjoy the story and definitely wanted to finish it - the ending provided a good twist. For me the book was more about the characters and their relationships - the crime being a result of those interactions. I do think the back cover comparisons to Kate Atkinson are premature. An author to watch though.
For other opinions, The Poison Tree was also reviewed by Bookbound, Serendipitous Readings and Linus's Blanket. Read an excerpt of The Poison Tree.