Source: Review copy #Netgalley
Publication: 25 July 2019 from Sphere
Where Romy grew up, if someone died you never spoke of them again.
Now twenty-two, she has recently escaped the toxic confines of the cult she was raised in. But Romy is young, pregnant and completely alone – and if she is to keep herself safe in this new world, she has some important lessons to learn.
Like how there are some people you can trust, and some you must fear. And about who her family really is, and why her mother ran away from them all those years ago.
And that you can’t walk away from a dark past without expecting it to catch up with you…
I adore Alex Marwood’s writing and she never fails to bring her characters vividly to life so that you know how they think and feel. The Poison Garden is a different kind of book to her most recent novels but it is just as dark and unnervingly brilliant.
This time she has taken the world of cults as her subject and shows us just what life is like in a world where children are brought up to believe that the law of the cult is the only way to be safe and that whatever happens, the word of the cult leader is not to be denied. These are children who know nothing of the world outside of their own desolate, harsh rural upbringing; whose rituals and slavish behaviours are difficult to comprehend and whose survival skills whilst exemplary will not equip them for what is to come.
This is a bleak and dangerous world. Those who live in the outside world are referred to as ‘the dead’ and every ounce of energy is put in to preparing for an apocalyptic world end. Members of the cult slavishly follow their charismatic leader, Lucien.
Told from three different perspectives, we first learn about our central characters after a cataclysmic event at their commune in Wales. Romy is young, pregnant and was born in the cult; Somer is her mother and Sarah is Somer’s younger sister who was brought up with her sister in a strict faith and now works at a Finborough school.
Sarah lives alone in the house that belonged to her deceased parents. Her sister Alison, renamed Somer in the cult, was ejected from the family home after she became pregnant. She had three children in the cult, Ilo and Eden, who are Romy’s siblings.
When the story begins we find Romy alone and in the hands of social services. She desperately needs to find her siblings whom Sarah, as their sole living adult relative is now looking after.
Marwood creates a layered narrative moving from present to past and back again to show us what life in the cult was like and how the cult’s power structure worked.
The Poison Garden is not a comfortable read. It is the story of life in a poisonous, pernicious culture where interpersonal relationships are toxic and ever shifting. It is particularly distressing to read at this time in our society, because one is left with the over-riding impression that such cults will grow in number as our political and cultural landscape lends itself to more extremism and the blind following of larger than life figures who promise everything and yet only serve their own needs.
Marwood’s depiction of her characters and their situations feels horribly close to an unpalatable, realistic scenario and it is all the more chilling for that. Monsters do live among us and they can command unswerving adoration which inexorably leads to obsessive, destructive behaviours.
She skillfully lays down a scenario which is disturbing and utterly compelling leaving this reader somewhat shell-shocked and horrified. There are faint echoes for me of The Handmaid’s Tale in her apocalyptic vision of life and that is one of the scariest things about this book.
By no means a conventional thriller, but all the better for it, Marwood has presented a story that will chill you to the bone and give you nightmares because you fear it may not be at all dystopian.
Verdict: Remarkable, chilling, uncomfortable and ultimately devastating. This is a must read.
Alex Marwood is a former journalist who worked extensively across the British press. Her first novel, The Wicked Girls, achieved widespread acclaim and international bestsellerdom. It was shortlisted for ITW, Anthony and Macavity awards, was included in Stephen King’s Ten Best Books of the Year list, and won the prestigious Edgar Award. The Killer Next Door, her second novel, won the coveted Macavity Award for Best Mystery Novel, was nominated for the Anthony and Barry. The Darkest Secret, the tale of the disappearance of young Coco, met with critical and reader acclaim. She has also been shortlisted for numerous other crime writing awards and her first two novels have been optioned for the screen. Marwood lives in south London and is working on her next novel.