Publication date: 29th March 2012 (paperback)
I reviewed Erin Kelly’s first novel, The Poison Tree, last summer and, whilst I could see the strength of the writing and plotting, I just wasn’t overcome with enthusiasm for it (unlike almost everyone else who reviewed it, I must add). It was a different matter with her second novel, The Sick Rose, which I found to be far more enjoyable.
Kelly weaves her tale from three different narrative threads, which come together in a genuinely shocking climax. The two main characters are Louisa and Paul. Louisa is a 39 year old expert in rare plants working at Kelstice, a fictional country house in Warwickshire, restoring its neglected garden to its former glory. Paul is a 19 year old petty criminal who arrives at Kelstice to join its other youths there on community service. However, his participation is slightly different – he has been placed 300 miles away from his home in Essex, in the hope that he won’t be tracked down before he can testify at his former friend’s murder trial. The tentative and risky developing relationship between Louisa and Paul is told in one of the narrative threads, set in 2009/10.
The two other narratives are flashbacks, showing Louisa and Paul in their former lives. Louisa’s strand shows her in 1989, as an 18 year old who shuns university to work on a market stall selling alternative remedies in Kensington Market. She meets her match in Adam Glasslake, whose death she is still mourning in 2009. Paul’s flashback tells of his early teenage years, from his witnessing his father’s death, which leads to a crippling phobia of blood, to his ‘friendship’ with Daniel. It’s this relationship which both led Paul into the world of petty thieving, and also to Kelstice, as he ran from Daniel’s father Carl.
Both main characters are well-drawn, especially Paul, who is a believable mix of the childish and the mature. As a boy who had to look after his mother after his father’s death, he grew up quickly, in some ways, but occasionally the fact that he is only 18 come shining through, making him seem vulnerable and real. The slow feeling of suffocation that he feels as Daniel and Carl invade more and more of his life is vividly described and provide a powerful contrast to the feelings of freedom that he feels at Kelstice. I felt that the character of young Louisa was similarly well developed, especially in terms of her jealousy and the all-consuming nature of first love. The older Louisa, however, felt slightly less convincing. She is almost 40 but still acts like a teenager for much of the time. This does reflect the fact that she shut off emotionally when her love affair with Adam ended in tragedy, but is a little distracting.
As regular readers will know, one of the things that annoys me most is a disappointing ending. So many thrillers are fantastic until the last couple of chapters, where everything suddenly speeds up and ends up feeling rushed. Thankfully, Kelly has avoided that and the denouement is satisfyingly shocking (and surprisingly emotional). The epilogue felt a little contrived, but I’m so happy that the climax was not condensed into one chapter that I’ll put that down to the semi-Gothic tone of the novel.
I enjoyed The Sick Rose and would recommend to people looking for a psychological thriller in the Barbara Vine mode.
Thanks to the author for sending me a copy of the book. All views are mine and I wasn’t paid for the review.