The Poison Garden
Alex Marwood
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Buy *The Poison Garden* by Alex Marwood online

Barcelona Days
Alex Marwood
Penguin Books
400 pages
January 2020
rated 3 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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With a sluggish narrative, Marwood seems never quite comfortable with her subject matter here. This is strange considering her previous, The Wicked Girls, was so engrossing and uncompromising in its approach to intense, nuanced storytelling. In The Poison Garden, Marwood transports us to an isolated Ark commune in rural UK, where the stark and stunning landscape looms large. The setting is almost a character in itself. If the slate-gray skies and jagged mountains haven't changed, there have been changes elsewhere--particularly when the police discover a mass of dead bodies.

Marwood's story is full of intricate, jilted connections. The inhabitants of the Ark had a reputation has being a bunch of oddballs, survivalist hippy types: "been up there 30 years preparing for the apocalypse." In September 2016, Romy "is out among the dead." She's the only adult still alive while Luz and Siraj, Vita and Lucien are the lost young people of the 1980's and 1990's, the ones who vanished and left their families wondering and also Eden and lo, who fresh from a council care facility - have come to live with their aunt, Sarah Byrne. Sarah last saw their mother, her sister, Alison twenty-one years ago. Her parents never spoke of Alison again and because she had never liked Alison much, Sarah "just went along with it."

Sarah tries anxiously to connect with her strange niece and nephew while thinking about the "girl" called Romy. She's the one they found in the Infirmary, the sole adult survivor. Sarah thinks of their loss, the things they've seen and the mark it will leave on their lives, along with the cognitive dissonance, brainwashing and the survivor's guilt: "a real niece and nephew... They're the only family I've got left."

As Romy finds her way to Sarah's home at Hounslow, Sarah is haunted by how her sister died in slow terror on a summer's day in Wales. Marwood moves between Romy's time in this spooky cult to the present day, then back to Lucien, the Ark's nefarious cult leader. Manipulative and sociopathic, Lucien continues to hold court over his minions. Fear ripples through the compound every time there's news of the Outside, and Lucien perpetuates the ethos that "life isn't fair and the universe is cruel and unjust." According to their Leader, the Ark will need strength and intelligence and endurance to carry them through the Great Disaster. With Romy entirely compliant, she zeroes in on timid Vita, who tells Romy of

"the estate, the farm, the moorland and the woods. It will all be hers [...] Maybe one day she will even get to go out among the Dead and see their world."
Romy's dreams are chaos, "a swirling vortex." Marwood encapsulates Romy's life after the Ark, haunted that is by darkness and by Sarah, who wants to show Romy, Eden and Io in some concrete way that she's on their side. Romy and Sarah's relationship builds to a shocking climax when Romy finally reconnects with Sarah in West London: "I'm sorry I never tried to find you before. You and your mum."

Marwood is a beautiful writer, her stark Welsh landscapes and portrayal of urban London as cinematic as ever. Her characters certainly draw us in, as do the clues behind what really happened at the Ark. Remy is a memorable character: quiet and steely--but is she also a killer? Though I was a bit disappointed in this outing, I look forward to seeing where Marwood takes us next.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Michael Leonard, 2020

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