Friday, March 25, 2011

Decadence & Obsession in London: One Fateful Summer

What lengths will we go to for our friends and our family? What behaviors will we--can we--put up with... and when does the sum total of those behaviors suddenly become “too much”? 
How do we know if love borders on obsession... and are we capable of realizing if and when it crosses the line, blithely sailing right on past what is apt to be recognized only later as the point of no return?
Why do we make the choices we do... and how do we justify living with their consequences?
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By all accounts, it would've been perfectly reasonable for Queen Charlotte’s College linguistics student Karen Clarke to assume she had life all figured out as it stretched endlessly before her, in a vista seemingly full of promise and possibilities. But, all sorts of things can intervene and spoil even the best-laid plans... something which author Erin Kelly illustrates with bold brushstrokes in her tour-de-force debut, The Poison Tree
(Quick note: You may be worried that I’m about to divulge spoilers. Trust me, I’m not.
Rising above her humble, blue-collar upbringing (via a natural talent for learning foreign languages), Karen was about to become the first in her family to receive any sort of degree, and she would do so with the highest honors. 
Besides her brilliant academic achievements, she'd also enjoyed the security of “belonging” and the luxury of safety during her years at school. From the first, she’d been welcomed into a small group of other “good” girls, and shortly after, had moved into a smart place with them in a nice neighborhood (rather than rooming in either the usual dingy, institutional housing offered by universities everywhere or the sort of dodgy, off-campus digs available from nearby slumlords). 
For the next four years, she proceeded to attend classes and study dutifully, work out at the gym, and hang out with her friends in their safe little world. Holidays were likewise spent together, as the housemates pooled their resources to visit all the prestigious European museums (staying in rented homes, rather than the grubby hostels frequented by their peers). Karen had a boyfriend, as well--a steady (if boring and self-centered) chap--with whom to be seen, marking her as part of a couple in their little crowd. 
If it was all a bit empty--if she often felt as though she were being towed by an invisible current, doing all the expected things at the proper times in the proscribed order--well, she just tried to push those thoughts right out of her mind. This was the life she’d always wanted... right?
Fortunately--or unfortunately, as the case may be--life rarely remains on such an even keel for long. Whether it’s one tiny little thing which leads to another and then another, snowballing, or something much more dramatic--a real sea change, it’s inevitable that sooner or later something will happen to alter the balance... something which changes everything.
In Karen’s case, the first changes are rather unexceptional. On the verge of completing their fourth year in school and deciding “what comes next”, her boyfriend unceremoniously breaks up with her. Then, her roommates inform her that they’ve made plans to go abroad for the summer... without her.
After the initial surprise, Karen feels relief at being shot of the lot of them, and she finds herself looking at this last summer of new-found freedom as an opportunity to really live. Moreover, she's convinced that fate has indeed intervened, when in short order she happens to meet a beautiful girl--the most exotic creature Karen has ever seen, looking for someone who can translate German for her. There would be no way of knowing that this would become one of the most-defining relationships of her entire life.
The bohemian Biba Capel is everything the proper Karen isn’t, which naturally makes her endlessly fascinating. Life is an adventure to Biba; she's the picture of spontaneity, knowing no boundaries and denying herself no pleasure (or, at least insofar as being a penniless-but-charming college student allows). By turns sensitive and brash, Biba is like a brilliant flame to so many fluttering moths... and she carries with her the sort of danger which is only realized too late.
Karen moves into Biba's huge family home in Highgate (which also houses Biba’s devoted and protective older brother, Rex, plus a revolving-door of eclectic guests and wanderers in need of a place to crash). Despite its impressive London address, though, the house is a mouldering pile of decrepitude--always a fire hazard (with everyone constantly smoking and burning candles), full of filthy, tatty furniture and unwashed dishes and clothes, and reeking of the stench left over from endless parties. Yet somehow, none of that really matters, simply because Biba is there. 
Like everyone else, Karen is obsessed with Biba--and later, to a somewhat-lesser degree with Rex--and she whiles away most of the sweltering summer in a haze of lazy, carefree days and smoky, booze-filled nights. It’s the happiest time she’s ever known, living with the Capels in their own little wasteland. But, all good things must end, and the summer of bliss comes to an abrupt halt when a sequence of events culminates in a shocking tragedy... leaving a family and friends torn apart by murder. 
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *  
This is a book--and these are characters--unlike any other. From our first vision of Karen Clarke (furtively but frantically racing off in the dead of night), to our next encounter with her (which takes place some ten years in the past), it's easy to see that this is someone with a tale to tell. Author Kelly leisurely shows us Karen’s world through Karen’s eyes, and in so doing we gradually come to understand just how inevitable are the events which follow.
I suspect there will be certain segments of people--particularly, those who prefer their stories tidy and linear, and those convinced that "fine art" means a depiction of heavenly rays of light over a pastoral scene--for whom this tale will hold little appeal. They'll probably feel confused and frustrated by the constant, back-and-forth nature of the story, as Kelly masterfully interweaves past and present, retracing Karen’s steps all the way back to the beginning. There are people who won’t approve of the subject matter, either; the author never looks down on the hippie-ish culture embraced by her characters, but focusses on their good and bad decisions and the outcomes of their actions. And, I suppose, there will even be some people who simply don’t have the patience to wait and see what everything is inexorably leading up to--the people who don’t like to be held in suspense, ever.
None of that describes me. Listening to me recount a story may, in fact, be much like this one--generally choosing the long, meandering way, and apt to tell things when I feel they’ll have the greatest effect (which isn’t necessarily, by any means, in their proper order). Nor do I actively seek out friends and acquaintances who predictably go from Point A to Point B every single day of the week; it’s so much more interesting being around people who really live (and think and feel and dream), rather than around those content to let life just happen to them. And--no great surprise--I adore suspense; I view life as a puzzle--with the pieces in a constant state of flux--and the thrill is in trying to figure out where everything goes.
That brings me, finally, to the suspense in The Poison Tree. I did, as it happens, figure out the ending well in advance of it. (As soon as a certain minor plot point was mentioned, I latched onto it and just knew.) Did that spoil one iota of the story--the whole experience--for me? No way. The Poison Tree is a psychological suspense of the first order, which means it is the people--and their motivations--which drive the story. Even if you know (or think you know) the what, who, when, or how, there’s still the why to worry about... and the why is the most fascinating part of all, because it is the why of everything which originates deep inside of us... and which explains, better than anything else, who we really are. By the end of The Poison Tree, we have a handle on the motivations of all the characters... and I suspect that we will all learn a little something about ourselves, in the process.
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 5 out of 5 mousies!!

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