I’m reading Erin Kelly’s second novel before her first.
I did pick up The Poison Tree last year, from the new books shelf in the library. It wasn’t a book I knew anything about, but striking design and a blurb that referenced both Rebecca and The Secret History pulled me in.
Sadly though, the story didn’t hold me. It was told in the present tense and it seemed to be walking a well-trodden, maybe over-trodden path. I gave up, and took the book back to the library.
Some months later I began to read more about The Poison Tree. Many words of praise, and I was told that there was a very good reason for the present tense narration. I decided to try the book again.
But before it reappeared I spotted the Sick Rose, Erin Kelly’s second novel. A title, and maybe a theme, borrowed from William Blake was much too much to resist.
The book came home, and I am pleased to report that it is a gem. A dark gem.
The Sick Rose twists together two lives. Two lives bent out of shape by distorted relationships.
Louisa is a horticulturist, working on the restoration of historic gardens. But she is haunted, and her life is constrained, by her relationship with a young musician. A relationship that ended, tragically, nearly twenty years ago. And yet she cannot let go.
Paul is a petty criminal, sent to Louisa’s project to keep him safe. Until he gives crucial evidence against a former friend, charged with murder. Paul is terrified that his past will catch up with him.
Louisa is drawn to Paul, who bears a remarkable resemblance to her lost love, and they slowly, tentatively, move towards a relationship.
Meanwhile, just as slowly, the truth about the past is revealed. A past that, maybe, they will be unable to escape…
The Sick Rose is very cleverly structured, moving between two past stories and the present in chapters that are both long enough to draw you in and yet short enough to keep the right sense of dislocation when the scenery shifted.
And the details of young lives, immature emotions, were caught perfectly. The details were right, and Erin Kelly allowed both the emotions of the time and the later, more mature, understanding to shine. Very clever. And clever too how she threaded themes through two very different stories of very different characters.
For me though, the present day story was less successful. It felt a little contrived, and there was less subtlety, less detail, a little less of everything to hold the interest.
But the characters held everything together. Flawed but utterly real characters.
And they held me, intrigued and wanting to know what on earth would happen, through all of the twists and turns of the story.
Sometimes I could see where the story was going, but more often I was taken by surprise.
The ending was unexpected, and yet it was right.
And a postscript tied up the last loose end. I almost wished it hadn’t: it was a little contrived, and I think I would have prefered to be left to wonder …
Because the story was so compelling, the characters so intriguing, that I would have liked to hold on for just a little longer.
But I have The Poison Tree to go back to, and I’ll be very interested to see what Erin Kelly writes next.