Very strongly reminiscent of Barbara Vine's A FATAL INVERSION, the main events of THE POISON TREE are set in a rambling old house in Highgate during the summer of 1997, when Tony Blair became Prime Minister of Britain for the first time, and, at summer's end, when Princess Diana died. These matters are of little concern, however, to Karen Clarke, a linguistics student coming up to the final exams of her degree course at the (fictional) Queen Charlotte's College, London. Up to that point, Karen regards herself as having a boring life, the only child of anxiously loving parents, and renting a room in a house with some identikit female students for the previous two or three years. Karen's boyfriend Simon, a fellow-student and rugger player whom she doesn't really like, ends their relationship as the novel begins, leaving Karen at loose ends for the summer as her flatmates decamp for a long holiday after Finals. Wandering round the college corridors, Karen bumps into Biba, a drama student who is urgently seeking someone to teach her German as her part in a play demands it. Immediately attracted to this eccentric and glamorous-seeming girl, Karen visits Biba at her family home, a rambling, decrepit but beautiful old mansion in north London, and in the process of the German lessons, falls for the whole thing – the house, the casual ambience as exotic characters drift in and out, and of course Biba and her brother Rex.
The reader is aware that disastrous events are to happen at the end of this summer, as these are heavily signalled throughout the novel and the story is mainly told in flashback, from a time about ten years into the future, as Karen is remembering the summer of 1997 as a very different person – now nervy, neurotic and traumatised. Gradually, we find out some of the reasons why, but don't see the full picture until the end of the book.
Although slow to start, I very much enjoyed THE POISON TREE, being pulled into the life of the central three characters over their intimate summer, in which Karen learns more about the strange circumstances of this brother and sister, and about the complexities underlying their behaviour. If I look at Biba and Rex too closely, I find them somewhat unbelievable creations and hard to sympathise with. Sometimes I felt I was reading what is euphemistically called "women's commercial fiction" (aka "chick lit") rather than a crime novel, but although the author teeters on the brink of romantic wish-fulfillment and vagueness about the normal business of living (both characteristics of the genre) a few times, she mostly veers away from sentimentality and provides enough realism, particularly in the present-day sections, to deliver a satisfying novel. The author gets away with some of the weaknesses of the Biba/Rex set-up by showing these unstable beings through the naive but sensible eyes of Karen, gauchely aware of being an outsider and longing to belong to the Bohemian and amazingly desirable lifestyle that she perceives. The author's skirting over many practical aspects of the plot can, therefore, be attributed to the naivety of her narrator.
The edgier Karen of the present is more human, and her paranoia and suspicions provide a much-needed crisper framework to the chocolate-boxy vision of the retrospective sections. In the end, past and present collide and the climax of the mystery, revealed in the final chapter, is not hard to guess in outline but nevertheless packs a real punch.