As a suspense writer, Erin Kelly is an elegant menace. She draws readers in with her compelling stories; then, she dims the lights, darkens the worldview and bolts the exit doors. Her debut novel last year, The Poison Tree, earned justified comparisons to Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. (Admittedly, I was one of the reviewers making that comparison, but Stephen King said so, too!) Now she has returned — like a nightmare — to trouble our imaginations again with a new thriller called The Dark Rose. It's useless to resist: You must read it.
Many of the elements that made The Poison Tree so distinct have been ingeniously reworked here. Kelly is drawn to intelligent young characters whose humble class origins or sexual naivete or just plain yearning makes them vulnerable to predators. She is also partial to telling her tales through extended flashbacks; when past catches up to the present, the inevitable collision is bone-jarring. And, if you think Swedes like Steig Larsson and Henning Mankell are dour, consider Kelly's steely view of the limits of human possibility. Fate is omnipotent in Kelly's novels. Like some Old Norse soothsayer, Kelly insists that our puny attempts to wrest control away from destiny only make the universe laugh. In The Dark Rose, Kelly has even more diabolical fun than she did in The Poison Tree, thwarting her characters' happiness at almost every labyrinthine turn of the narrative.
Two main characters whose lives have been scarred by obsession are introduced in the early chapters of The Dark Rose. Louisa is a 39-year-old horticulturist recently moved into a crummy trailer near the grounds of a ruined estate that dates from the Middle Ages. Louisa specializes in resurrecting ancient gardens from the barest traces of flowerbeds and ponds, but she lives in the past in another sense, too. When the novel opens, she's busy lighting candles in her trailer, swigging Irish whiskey and decking herself out in an out-of-date blue crushed-velvet dress. The "exorcism," as she calls it, commences in earnest when she pops a videotape into her old TV and watches, transfixed, as her rock 'n' roll lover, dead some 20 years, begins singing. Louisa bends forward. "She could almost believe that the yearning she felt was powerful enough to pull him out of the frozen picture and back into life, but the only reciprocal warmth was the hot static kiss of the screen."
Cut away to Paul, a bright young man whose life began going into a tailspin some five years earlier when his happy-go-unlucky father was killed right before his eyes in a stupid home improvement mishap. The family fortunes evaporated, and Paul and his mother had to move to a public housing development called "Gray's Reach," where he was bullied daily. Here's how Paul recalls his entry into his dismal new school: "[I]t was horribly apparent that ... there were opportunities for blood to escape everywhere. His junior school had presented nothing more hazardous than round plastic scissors and the odd grazed knee: This building was one big flesh wound waiting to happen." Paul prays for a friend, a protector, and one day his prayers are granted. That's when Paul finds out that a friendship with the wrong person can be like life imprisonment without parole.
Paul is, in fact, led into a life of crime by his demanding buddy and, as part of a rehabilitation program, he is dispatched to the very same tumbledown estate where Louisa fusses over saplings and seeds. If this were a different type of novel, a reader might be tempted to believe in fresh starts. But deadly frosts, rather than gentle rains, are in store for these two transplants. The first bad omen is that Paul turns out to be a dead ringer for Louisa's dearly departed lover.
The narrative of The Dark Rose is so elaborately braided that these plot developments constitute only a few twists. Kelly recognizes that, in order for readers to accept the improbable swerves of coincidence that move her eerie tale along, everything else here — the tortured inner lives of her characters, the period details of her settings — must be rendered with vivid realism. That she does. By the end of The Dark Rose, I predict that, like me, you will find yourself so caught up with these characters and their doomed situations that you'll be rooting for them to somehow beat the cosmic odds. What fools we mortals be.