Article published on July 6, 2011.
The Sick Rose is Erin Kelly’s follow up to her hugely successful debut The Poison Tree. It throws together Louisa, a garden renovator on the cusp of forty, and Paul, a young man twenty years her junior, fleeing the danger and tragedy he left behind in his native Essex. Both share dark pasts which inform their every daily action, but in each other they believe they may have found an all-too elusive happiness. Throughout the course of the book, Kelly evokes the titular motif brilliantly, questioning whether one love founded in the remains of another can ever survive.
Kelly describes the physical world in abundant detail, but her writing is never laboured. Instead, the vivid descriptions breathe life into both Kelstice Lodge, the decaying Warwickshire mansion where Louisa and Paul are employed, and into Grays Reach, the bleak housing estate of Paul’s youth. The contrast is striking; Kelstice Lodge (which will inevitably renew earlier comparisons with du Maurier with its similarity to Mandereley) is filled with gothic splendour. It is an enduring monument to a more noble time. In a clash of history and modernity, Grays Reach is depicted as a monument to the horrors of mid twentieth century architecture; it appears to have been constructed solely to inspire violence and criminality.
In The Sick Rose, there is a powerful clash between historic and contemporary architecture. However, the events of the past and those of the present seem to exist simultaneously. By telling the story non-chronologically, flitting between 1989 and 2009, Kelly masterfully blurs the lines of time. The effect forces the reader to see the world as Louisa sees it; with the events of ‘89 as fresh and immediate as the day they occurred.
Kelly’s emotional intuition as a writer is breathtaking, particularly where dealing with the psychology of teenagers. An introverted and bullied boy, Paul lives a life almost without skin. All the shame, awkwardness and self-consciousness of youth is brought to the page, and without the bedrock of confidence that comes with age and experience, trauma cuts Paul deeply and leaves enduring scars.
Kelly also creates utterly plausible victims of circumstance. Both Paul and Louisa are imperfect people, but through excellent plotting and superbly thought-out back stories, Kelly ensures that the reader is sympathetic to both. Paul’s young life is fraught with disaster and misfortune; he was corralled into crime by a stronger personality and a total lack of alternatives. Similarly, the teenage Louisa was consumed by love for a deeply charismatic but flawed man. Neither character is blameless, but neither character could reasonably be said to be the author of their own tragic tale.
The Sick Rose then, is a sublime sophomore effort. The atmosphere is brooding and filled with menace, the plot is perfectly structured, and when the ending comes, it hits home with staggering force. With her first offering, Kelly showcased her prodigious talent as a thriller writer, drawing comparisons with no less authors than du Maurier. With The Sick Rose, she confirms her initial success was no mere fluke; Kelly is definitely a writer to watch.
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