The Poison Tree

The Poison Tree

by Erin Kelly

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From an incredible new voice in psychological suspense, a novel about the secrets that remain after a final bohemian summer of excess turns deadly.

This taut psychological thriller begins when Karen and her nine-year- old daughter, Alice, pick up Rex from a ten-year stint in prison for murder. Flash back to the sultry summer in 1990s London when Karen, a straight-A student on the verge of college graduation, first meets the exotic, flamboyant Biba and joins her louche life in a crumbling mansion in Highgate. She begins a relationship with Biba's enigmatic and protective older brother, Rex, and falls into a blissful rhythm of sex, alcohol, and endless summer nights. Naïvely, Karen assumes her newfound happiness will last forever. But Biba and Rex have a complicated family history-one of abandonment, suicide, and crippling guilt-and Karen's summer of freedom is about to end in blood.

When old ghosts come back to destroy the life it has taken Karen a decade to build, she has everything to lose. She will do whatever it takes to protect her family and keep her secret. Alternating between the fragile present and the lingering past with a shocker of an ending, The Poison Tree is a brilliant suspense debut that will appeal to readers of Kate Atkinson, Donna Tartt, and Tana French.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101475393
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/06/2011
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 243,106
File size: 589 KB

About the Author

Erin Kelly read English and European literature at Warwick University and has worked as a freelance journalist for more than ten years. She has written for The Sunday Times, The Sunday Telegraph, The Daily Mail, Psychologies, Red, Elle, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, and Glamour. She lives in North London with her husband and daughter.

Read an Excerpt


I let the telephone fall from my hand. Panic first cripples and then revives me. My fingertips tingle as they feel their way around the coffee table, scrabbling first for my car keys and then for my cell phone. I seem to have eight limbs as I try to get dressed in the dark, pulling on my coat and a pair of oversize sheepskin boots that I usually wear as slippers. At the threshold I hesitate for a second, then rush back to my desk and fumble in the drawer for my passport and a credit card that I keep for emergencies. I pull the door behind me in silence, although blood roars and rushes in my ears. With shaking hands I double-lock it: whether to keep someone in or to keep someone out, I can’t know yet.

Outside, I tiptoe, but there is a crack and a squelch as I flatten a snail beneath my sole, and when I tread in a puddle by the gate, cold water seeps through the soft suede and licks unpleasantly at my bare toes.

In the dark interior of the car I turn the key in the ignition and wince as the air blows icy cold, dispersing the fluffy clouds of my breath. My hands are so cold they feel wet; I am relieved to find a pair of woolen gloves bundled in my left pocket. Before put ting them on, I use my cell phone to cover the last caller’s tracks. I call the house phone, wait for the click of connection, and hang up before it has a chance to ring. The windshield is opaque with frost and I do not have time to wait for the heaters to defog the glass. I wipe a porthole in the passenger window and squint back into the dark recess of the bedroom window. If he had heard me, the light would be on by now. He would be silhouetted at the window, mouthing my name. Would that stop me? Would anything?

The car is pointed directly at the front of the house. If I turn the headlights on, they will shine into the window, so with no beams to guide me and only a smeared handprint of visibility through the windows, I pull out into the road. Only when I have guessed my way to the end of our lane do I switch on the full beam. The countryside is frosted and stark. Naked hedgerows cast eerie shapes in front of me and the high banks of the narrow road throw up shadows that take human form. The dead, the missing, and the missed surround me now, passive spirits who have become active ghosts. I am afraid to glance behind. They pursue me as I drive aggressively, suicidally, mounting the grass verge when I take a blind bend much too fast. The seatbelt digs into the flesh between my breasts as I make an emergency stop to avoid hitting the truck that suddenly looms in front of me. It’s a filthy vehicle of indeterminate color, tools loose in the back, moving so slowly that the driver must be drunk. I have no option but to slow to a crawl behind him.

I ought to use this enforced pause for rational thought. But there is nothing rational about this situation. I am driving alone in pajamas and wet, clammy boots on a country lane in the middle of the night. Nobody knows where I am or why. I had only been thinking of the others, but for the first time it strikes me that my own safety might be compromised if I continue.

A glance at my speedometer tells me that we are traveling at twelve miles an hour. I toot and flash, but by the cold blue glow in his cab I see that he is making a phone call. I map the road ahead in my mind. I have driven it so often that I know every pothole, kink, and curve. I take a deep breath, crunch the gears, and plunge blindly into the passing place I calculate is just to my right. The driver of a black car coming in the opposite direction has had the same idea and we skim each other as we pass, with a sickening screech of metal on metal. I accelerate. Let him chase me if he wants to make something of it. My left-hand mirror is wrenched from its casing and falls to dangle lifelessly at the side from a lone wire, like a severed limb attached to its body by a single vein. The retreating driver sounds his horn angrily, the Doppler effect making it drop a forlorn semitone as it continues in the direction of my house. The truck is between us and it is too late to turn and see if the driver was alone or carrying a passenger, if it was a regular car or a taxi.

I pick up my crazy pace. Only a speed camera, predicted by a luminous sign, persuades my foot to the brake. On the borders of the town the scrubby roadside edges give way to narrow pavements and trees thin out to accommodate houses, a pub, a gas station. Lampposts appear, imitation Victorian globes like a parade of tiny moons, and I realize with a corresponding lucidity that this is it. The event I have been expecting and dreading for a third of my life is finally here.

It suddenly feels very hot inside the car. My hands are sweating inside my gloves, my eyes are dry, and my tongue is stuck to the roof of my mouth. I have given up so much and done so many terrible things already for the sake of my family that I can only keep going. I do not know what is going to happen to us. I am frightened, but I feel strong. I have the strength of a woman who has everything to lose.


I try to see the city through his eyes. It has been only ten years, but London has changed. Will he notice the subtle developments of the last decade? Does he register the lack of telephone boxes or the proliferation of Polish grocers? What about the plugged-in pedestrians with white wires connecting their ears to their pockets? The red circles on the road that welcome us into and usher us out of the congestion zone? I’m dying to know what he is thinking. His eyes, though, are fixed on the sycamore pods and leaves stuck under the windshield wipers. Running commentary has never been his style, but this silence is unnerving.

Alice is talking enough for the three of us, a high-pitched stream of consciousness that spills from the backseat. She has made this journey from southeast London to our home on the Suffolk coast four times a year, every year of her life. She loves traveling home through town, preferring to inch through dirty streets rather than cruise around the highway, even though it adds hours onto our journey. I always save this route for a special treat, when her behavior throughout our visit has been particularly good, or when she and Rex have found saying good-bye harder than usual. Sometimes I drive through town when I need to think, knowing that Alice’s nose will remain pressed against the glass as the car crawls from suburb to inner city to suburb again, that the questions she asks will be about what that man is selling or what that building is, rather than another discussion about why Daddy has to live so far away.

But this afternoon’s detour isn’t at Alice’s request. As we creep along Holloway Road, her favorite part of the journey, her focus is inside the car. She does not seem to mind her demotion from the front seat to the back. She ignores the Caribbean barbershop she loves to wave at and the metallic, space-age university building we saw being built, panel by shiny blue panel. We even pass the grimy cell phone store that holds such a strange fascination for her without the usual argument about when she will be old enough for her own telephone. We stop at a red light and with a click and a giggle she slides out of her seatbelt and squeezes between the driver and passenger seats. Her twiggy fingers weave in and out of Rex’s hair, tugging it, massaging his scalp, shampooing it and revealing silver threads around his ears and temples. She shoots out rapid-fire questions one after the other without waiting for answers.

“Will you take me to school when I go back next week? Will you drive Mum’s car or are we going to have two? Lara’s mum and dad have a car each but she still walks to school. Don’t you think—oh my God, you can come swimming now! What’s your best stroke? Mine’s front crawl. Will you take me swimming?”

“I’ll do whatever you want,” says Rex, and Alice kisses the top of his head. Her knees fold forward and nudge the gearshift while an elbow knocks against my head as I try to negotiate the Archway traffic circle. I shout at her when I had sworn I wouldn’t, not today. She shrugs off my scolding. The car swings to the left as I take the exit for the Great North Road. Rex crosses his legs, folds his arms, and shifts in his seat. He knows where I’m going. Perhaps he was expecting it. Perhaps, like me, he needs this one last visit to the past before we can build our future.

Archway Road is unusually clear, and the three of us cruise underneath the bridge in the long, low autumn dazzle. The neighborhood has been gentrified in the decade since we lived here. We pass a designer baby boutique where a thrift store used to be. The liquor store that would sell us two bottles of nasty wine for five pounds, even at three in the morning, has now been upgraded to a wine merchant, and even the old pubs and restaurants look cleaner and brighter than I remember them: more plate glass, fewer metal shutters. But Archway still has some way to go, I think, as I swerve to avoid chunks of glass exploded from a bus stop window and scattered across the street like ice cubes.

Neither of us has been here for over a decade but I can still drive this street, anticipate those lights, make these gear changes, on autopilot. I could do it with my eyes shut. For a reckless second, I’m tempted to try, to close my eyes and lock the wheel on a right curve. But I make the double turn into Queenswood Lane wide-eyed and unblinking. The noise of the city falls away as we enter the secret sliver of wildwood, where the ancient trees muffle the sirens and the screeches of the street and the half-hidden houses occupy a dark green private universe, cushioned by money as much as by trunk and bough and leaf. I drive carefully between the expensive cars, their side-view mirrors tucked into their bodies in case someone unfamiliar with the road drives too quickly and knocks into one. But I am more familiar with this lane than any other road, including the one I grew up on and the one I live on now. It’s the setting for most of my memories and all of my nightmares. I know every old brick wall, every bump in the road, every lamppost. The 1860s apartment block with its Italianate walled garden still sits alongside that glass-and-concrete bubble, someone’s vision of the future from the 1960s that would never make it past the conservation society today. Stern Victorian town houses tower over a pastel-colored fairy-tale mansion. Their windows glower down at us.

I deliberately don’t look toward the last house, the place where everything happened, before the street surrenders to the trees. I focus on the road as the leafy tunnel swallows this car for the first time and park with the house behind me, telling Alice that Mummy and Daddy need to stretch their legs. She tumbles out of the car and skips into the trees, her tracksuit a flash of pink through half-undressed branches. The little red lights in the heels of her sneakers wink at us like tiny eyes.

“Don’t go too far!” I call. We watch as she drags her feet through the fallen leaves, tracing letters with her toes, staining the hem of her trousers with flakes of wet bark and leaf mold. She doesn’t know it, but she’s playing yards away from the spot where she was conceived. Rex speaks first.

“It’s got to be done, I suppose.” He circles the car to open my door. I get out and point the key at the car, and it locks with a pow-pow noise. Rex raises an eyebrow. “Very swish,” he says, taking the key from me and examining it as though it contains an entire album of high-energy dance tracks. I close my eyes to make the turn, and when I open them, there it is. Exactly where we left it, I think—although where could it have gone? The four-story town house surrounded not by cars and concrete but by lime and plane and birch and oak; half stucco, half gray brick, it really belongs on the end of a terrace in Islington or Hackney. Its incongruity is one of the things that always made its presence on the edge of the forest so magical. It has changed, of course. It looks naked, cleaner and more metropolitan than ever now that someone has pulled down the dark green ivy that covered all of the side wall and half the front one and found its way in through the windows in the summertime. The creamy stucco gleams, not a single peel or crack in the paint. It looks innocent. But then, so do I.

The flaked black paint on the front door has been replaced by flawless turquoise gloss, and the golden lion door knocker gleams. The steep front steps—formerly a death trap of long-dead herbs tufting out of broken terra-cotta pots, lone roller skates, empty wine bottles, and never-to-be-read free local newspapers—have also been restored, and instead the door is flanked by two perfectly symmetrical bay trees with twisted stems in aluminum pots. Six recycling boxes are stacked neatly and discreetly behind a magnolia tree in the front garden. Instead of the nonworking bell pull which no one ever bothered with, there are six buzzers. The first time I ever came here, I spent ten minutes looking for just such a row of doorbells bearing different names. It didn’t occur to me that people my age could live in the whole of this building rather than occupy an apartment within it. I don’t need to get any closer to know how the place has changed on the inside. Without peering through the white-shuttered windows, I know exactly how the interiors of these apartments will look: coir or sisal carpeting, because the battered floorboards were beyond restoration even for the most dedicated property developer. The black and white hall will have been renovated, an original feature that will have added value to the house price. It was in terrible condition when we lived there, and afterward, there was that terrible stain.

There will be magnolia walls with flat-screen television sets flush against them, stainless steel kitchens, each boxy white bedroom with its own frosted-glass bathroom. It had been sold, but not until a long time after the police and the press had gone. The redevelopment had begun as soon as the yellow incident tape had been taken down and the cameras and reporters had moved on. Only then did the real estate agents begin to throng the house. I had often imagined the swarm of suits trampling polystyrene and paper coffee cups discarded by reporters, looking beyond the building’s grisly history, seeing only the rare opportunity to sell a sensitively converted character property in a highly desirable location, situated seconds from the Tube and on the edge of the historic Queen’s Wood.

The violent physical reaction I was half-expecting—a swoon, or a full faint, or even vomiting—doesn’t come. Rex too is calm, indecipherable, and it’s he who has the most, and the most gruesome, memories of this place. It was his home for twenty-four years and mine for only one summer. Alice breaks the reverie, dropping five feet from a tree I hadn’t noticed her climb, bored now, asking Rex for a can of Coke because she knows I’ll say no. I shrug and let him decide. Tonight, we’ll sit down and establish some ground rules for dealing with Alice before she becomes hopelessly, irretrievably spoiled. But today, I’ll let Rex play the indulgent father. One day won’t hurt.

She gets her drink, but not from the newsstand near Highgate Tube; I bet it’s still owned by the same family. They might not recognize me, but of course they would remember Rex. They would have sold enough newspapers with him on the front page. Instead, we drive up Muswell Hill Road and I let Rex and Alice jump out and into a more anonymous convenience store. Did I ever go there? The fruits and vegetables piled up in front of the shop, their dull skins patiently absorbing the fumes from my exhaust, do nothing to jog my memory. Rex and Alice are in there for a while, and it’s not until she emerges, red-faced and holding out her hand, that I realize I haven’t given him any money.

Before we’ve even reached the North Circular Road that links Rex’s old part of London to his new home, Alice has slipped out of her seatbelt again and is lying across the seat, kicking at the air, singing to herself and spilling sticky cola all over her clothes and the car seat. Ten years fall away and I remember another journey on this road. It was the day Rex’s credit card arrived, and we celebrated by driving to the supermarket to stock up on all the food and drink we could cram into my little Fiat. Rex sat beside me losing a wrestling match with the sunroof, while Biba took up the whole of the backseat, so Guy can’t have been with us. She dangled a cigarette out of the left-hand window, her feet poking out of the right-hand one in a desperate attempt to cool down. I can feel the gummy heat of that summer now. I remember the prickle of my heat rash and the way the sweat from my body made my cheap purple T-shirt bleed dye onto my skin like an all-over bruise. I remember the way perspiration gave Rex a permanent kiss-curl in the middle of his forehead, like Superman. I can still see the crisscross sunburn lines on Biba’s back. A pink leg comes between me and the rearview mirror.

“Put your seatbelt on, Alice,” I say. She walks her feet up onto the ceiling, printing a thin layer of leaf mold in the shape of her shoes across the pale gray ceiling. She’s testing me and I fail. “I said, put your fucking seatbelt on, Alice!” Or did I say something else? Rex looks at me in horror while Alice, more interested in the unfolding drama than offended by my swearing, is suddenly silent and upright.

“What did you call her?” he says in a whisper, and at the same time Alice asks, “Who’s Biba?”

Reading Group Guide


"I held my life loosely in my hands, unaware that I was about to relinquish my grip. In the space of a week, apathy suddenly gave way to passion I had not begun to guess I was capable of" (p. 14).

When Karen Clarke's boyfriend, Rex, returns home after serving a ten-year sentence for murder, she hopes that the long nightmare is finally over. She longs to smooth the transition for everyone—especially nine-year-old Alice, who has grown up visiting prison and has never had a father at home. But all too soon it becomes clear that someone else knows of their blood-stained past and threatens to destroy the tenuous peace that Karen has worked so hard to build.

A decade earlier, Karen would have described her life as uneventful, even boring. Able to "pick up new languages as easily as the other children… copied radio jingles and cartoon catchphrases" (p. 12), Karen was a lower-middle-class scholarship student in her final year at Queen Charlotte's College in London. She dated a rugby player, and her roommates were three other girls whose wildest excesses consisted of a glass of wine with dinner. Then she met Biba.

"It was the summer when the Spice Girls were inescapable… [and] the girl before me appeared to be dressed like all five of them at once" (p. 20). Beautiful, flamboyant, and dazzlingly self-assured, Biba Capel was a drama student in need of someone to help her perfect a German accent. Karen coached her, and, in return, was invited to join her new friend's bohemian circle.

Biba's perfect vowels and Gucci handbag belied her constant lack of money and the dilapidated state of the rambling Highgate mansion she lived in with her brother, Rex. But Karen found everything about her fascinating. "Now that I had met Biba… my housemates seemed unbearably generic… I was angry at myself for not realizing this sooner, and angry at them for not being Biba" (p. 79).

With her university days behind her, Karen was eager to make up for lost time and quickly immersed herself in the hazy, intoxicated rhythms of the Capel household. Yet while the three of them lived at close quarters, Karen was initially unsure of her feelings toward Rex. Four years older than the sister he so uncannily resembled, Rex fussed over Biba with a "hysterical overprotectiveness [that] annoyed as well puzzled" (p. 84).

Rex's anxieties only increased when Biba became involved with Guy, a good-looking drug dealer whose lower-class accent "sounded like an affectation" (p. 149). But Biba found Rex's disapproval as amusing as Guy's tattoos and street-smart veneer, and Guy soon became firmly ensconced in their home.

"Perhaps… filling the void left by Biba's absence" (p. 164), Rex and Karen gravitated toward one another. Blissfully happy in their new romance, Karen didn't suspect that the mounting hostilities between Guy and Rex were on a collision course with the siblings' tragic family past or that her summer of freedom was about to end in blood.

Fans of psychological suspense will be enthralled as Karen's story unfolds in a sinuous narrative that flashes between the 1990s and the present. Gripping from the first page to its final shocking denouement, Erin Kelly's The Poison Tree is a masterful debut and a haunting exploration into the heart and mind of an ordinary woman who has everything to lose.


Erin Kelly read English and European literature at Warwick University and has worked as a freelance journalist for more than ten years. She has written for The Sunday Times, The Sunday Telegraph, The Daily Mail, Psychologies, Red, Elle, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, and Glamour. She lives in North London with her husband and daughter.


Q. Is any part of this novel autobiographical, or is it wholly imagined? Would you say that you were—or are—more like Karen or Biba?

The Poison Tree is autobiographical with respect to its setting—like Karen and Biba, I turned twenty-one in the summer of 1997 and remember it like it was yesterday, and I was living in Highgate at the time. This was simply because I was daunted by the task of writing my first novel; there were so many unknowns that I wanted to root the action in a time and place I could be confident about describing. In terms of character, I probably resemble Karen the most; like her, I was a studious teenager, and I have been that girl who hides in a corner at the party, overawed and tongue-tied, more times than I care to remember! That said, Karen is more naïve than I have ever been, something I think we can attribute to her sheltered, provincial adolescence and the fact that she is, due to her precocity, always an academic year ahead of her classmates. As for Biba, while I would love her ability to beguile (and indeed her extensive wardrobe), she is definitely drawn from friends and acquaintances rather than my own experience.

Q. Most of us have flirted with dangerous situations or people during our college or young adult years, but few pay the price that Karen does. What inspired her story?

I have always been drawn to characters on the cusp of adulthood, students in particular, because it's such an intense, irresponsible time of life. Our minds and bodies are adult, we are no longer under the care of our parents, not yet burdened by careers, mortgages, or children. Relationships and living arrangements tend to be quite fluid, with friendships forged and abandoned almost weekly, and the same goes for lovers; these fluctuations and transitions mean that life is brimming with potential for fun, sex, experience and the dark side of these things too, heartbreak, betrayal, death. Since turning thirty a few years ago I've come to realize just how small a window of irresponsibility those student years are, which makes it seem, in retrospect, even more intense.

Q. The Poison Tree has been justly compared to everything from Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca to Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. Who were your literary influences?

I've read Rebecca and Brideshead countless times, and I'm hugely flattered to be mentioned in the same breath as either of them. What they have in common is a theme that has always resonated with me, that of a young person being seduced by a house and its inhabitants, with fatal or heartbreaking consequences. Barbara Vine's early books were a huge influence on me; she is the mistress of the fragmented, extended flashback structure that I used for The Poison Tree (and indeed my next novel). Reading The House of Stairs and Grasshopper I realized for the first time that "murder mystery" novels don't have to start with the discovery of a body and work back from that, that your characters need not be marginalized criminals, PIs or policemen, and that lyrical writing and interesting relationships need not mean sacrificing plot. I also love Ian McEwan, Audrey Niffenegger, Tana French, William Boyd, Maggie O'Farrell, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Rebecca Miller. Going further back, I'm obsessed with the English Victorian writer Wilkie Collins. The Moonstone and The Woman in White are dense, droll, and brilliantly plotted: he was the pioneer of the genre that we now know as the psychological thriller.

Q. With the exception of Biba, none of the novel's central characters are happy with the class they were born into. Rex envies Karen's solid, lower-middle-class upbringing; Guy pretends to be a working-class street thug when he's actually from an upper-middle class background; and Karen aspires first to her college roommates' "world… of tennis clubs, aerobics classes, theaters, and restaurants" (p. 13), and then to Biba's upper-class Bohemianism. Are issues of class ever avoidable in an English novel?

In many ways preoccupation with class is universal. You don't need to have grown up in England to understand that feeling of pretending to be something you're not, or of not belonging where you come from. While the class structure in England is no longer as rigid and formal as it once was, social mobility is still a huge problem; for example, ten percent of the men in the current British government went to just one private school, Eton. Even the very talented or ambitious never really escape the class they were born into. No matter how outwardly successful you are, there will always be those who judge you on your family background rather than your achievement as an individual. Some of my favourite novels English novels—I'm thinking in particular of The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst and the aforementioned Brideshead Revisited—deal with those tiny identifying differences that are imperceptible to foreigners but are the things that determine where you live, who you marry, the work you do, all the things that make up a life.

This is bad news for the socially ambitious, but great news for novelists; class envy is, along with love and greed and desire and revenge, one of the great motivating forces in English life. It makes people do things. It makes things happen.

Q. At one point in the novel, Karen turns the tables on Alison Larch, a television journalist she suspects of investigating Rex, and interrogates her on her current roster of work. In what other ways did you draw upon your own experiences as a journalist?

My experience as a journalist was useful in that I don't get "stage fright" in front of a word processor, but actually it was more detrimental than helpful. Writing fiction is the opposite of journalism, where one owes it to one's readers and editors (not to mention lawyers) to adhere to the truth, so after a decade of interviewing and fact-checking you can imagine that writing a novel was hugely liberating for me. As for Karen's shadowing of Alison Larch, I don't think you need to be a professional reporter to write or even identify with that. The Internet means that we're all journalists now, to a degree; anyone with a broadband connection can find out the most surprising details about someone else's career or private life in minutes. I know that some writers lament the passing of telephones and letter writing, that cell phones and e-mails make suspense fiction harder to write but I think current technology is hugely democratizing. A young mother, working late in her home office, can experience the thrill of the chase while her daughter sleeps upstairs. It means that any of us can experience that cat-and-mouse feeling at any time.

Q. In the acknowledgments you thank your "beautiful daughter Marnie, the novel's twin, who had the grace not to be born until the ink on the last page was dry." In more superstitious times, expecting mothers were careful not to cross paths with any kind of unpleasantness (e.g. a dead body, someone with a deformity) lest the experience adversely affect their unborn children. Did you ever find it unsettling to dwell upon such a disturbing tale with a child in your womb?

It might sound strange but I found writing a dark novel reassuring rather than disturbing. I felt very vulnerable when I was pregnant, very aware that nothing was under my control, from the size of my belly to the big bad world my baby would be born into. Writing The Poison Tree allowed me to exercise total control, even if only over a fictional world.

Q. When Karen first returns to her parents' home with Alice, her mother tells her, "you're still my baby. I still feel about you the way you feel about her now" (p. 303). Do you read The Poison Tree differently now that you're a mother yourself?

That scene when Karen goes home has more to do with being a daughter than a mother, and I'm very lucky that my parents resemble the Clarkes more than the Capels when it comes to showing love and support. Karen feels that she has let them down very badly, and I tried to imagine how I might feel in her shoes.

I do feel that I understood Karen's actions better at the time of writing than I did in the months immediately after my daughter was born. When the newborn haze had ascended I revisited that section of the book and understood that Karen's relationship with Alice was indivisible from the sense of guilt and responsibility that she feels, rightly or wrongly, about the deaths that have occurred. I did go back and rework some of those chapters with that in mind, writing with my daughter sleeping in a sling on my front.

Q. What are you working on now?

I've just finished writing my second novel, The Sick Rose, about Paul, a teenage boy drawn into a destructive friendship with an illiterate classmate but their association ends in violence and he is forced to choose his own future over his allegiance to his friend. In hiding, he meets an older woman, Louisa, who has secrets of her own that are about to surface. Like The Poison Tree, it has a fractured narrative, with one strand set in the past.

The characters from my third book have started to form faces and voices, and I won't be able to ignore them for much longer.


Spoiler Warning: Don't read any further if you don't want to know whodunit!

  • As Karen approaches graduation, her parents worry because she had never indulged in a period of reckless fun. Her father chides, "you're an old head on young shoulders… give yourself a break. Every young person should have one summer they look back on for the rest of their lives" (p. 86). Is such an experience a critical rite of passage to adulthood?
  • Were Karen's later troubles a result of her early caution?
  • What is the significance of Biba's encounter with "the poison tree" (p. 117)?
  • Well before she had anything to hide, Karen remembers feeling "exposed, as though I was about to be found out for a crime I couldn't name but knew I was guilty of. I once heard someone say that everyone lives in fear of being 'found out,' that all you have to do is tell them that you know their secret often enough and paranoia will make them confess" (p. 144). Do you agree or disagree?
  • What is the significance of Karen's facility with languages?
  • Do you think Karen and Rex would have become romantically involved if Guy hadn't entered Biba's life?
  • Before Biba departs, she leaves Karen a note saying, "I like the name Alice" (p. 293). Like many girls, Karen and Biba both loved Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Did Biba bequeath the name with love, contempt, or something else?
  • Why did Biba fake her suicide? Do Biba's actions reveal her to be more like her mother or her father?
  • In retrospect, there is plenty of evidence that Alice is actually Biba's daughter. "Her clothes are never just thrown together but chosen with delight and calculation, just like Biba's always were. But she has something else in common with Biba; when Alice's mood exults, it is contagious" (p. 110). Did you anticipate this, or were you taken by surprise? Would Karen have waited for Rex if Alice had never been born? If not—and so much of their relationship was predicated by chance—were they really in love?
  • Because she is the novel's sole narrator, Karen's version of events is inherently unreliable. Are there any moments in which you found yourself questioning her account? What would have happened if she hadn't eliminated Biba?
  • "Innocence… has two opposites. One is experience. The other is guilt" (p. 98). Is Karen right to blame herself for her role in the earlier murders? To what extent do you think this influences her ultimate actions?
  • Ultimately, will Karen be happier sharing her hard-won life with Rex and Alice than she would have been had she and Simon stayed together?
  • The stress of Rex's release causes Karen to slip and call Alice, "Biba." Do you think it's possible to keep the kind of lifelong secrets that Karen forces herself to carry? How far would you go in order to preserve the happiness of those you love?
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