Review: Survival takes many forms in `The Poison Garden'

In  a review of Alex Marwood’s “The Poison Garden,” Oline H

“The Poison Garden,” Penguin, by Alex Marwood

Survival takes many forms in “The Poison Garden,” Alex Marwood’s gripping, creepy fourth psychological thriller, this time revolving around the demise of a doomsday cult in North Wales.

Those who lived at the remote Ark commune were willing to put up with its stringent rules, loss of their identity and sexual intimidation because they were kept “safe” from the evils of the outside world. But then the cult’s patriarch, Lucien Blake, ordered a mass suicide with converts taking a cocktail of natural poisons they cultivated on their land.

The only adult survivor of the Ark is 21-year-old Romy, who is viewed by the local authorities first as a suspect and finally as a victim of the Ark. Her transition to the outside world isn't easy, intensifying her feelings of being a stranger that began when her mother, Somer, brought her to the Ark when she was a child. Not being born at the Ark, Romy was never fully accepted by the other converts. She is even more at odds with the outside world, which she was taught would soon end.

Although she appears to assimilate, Romy has other plans — to hide her pregnancy for fear her baby will be taken away from her, and to find her two half-siblings who are now living with her mother’s sister, the newly divorced Sarah Bryne. Romy has no qualms about what she has to do in order to survive.

“The Poison Garden” smoothly explores Romy’s life among “the Dead,” as the Ark called those who live in the outside world, and her memories of the commune, why Somer settled there and Sarah’s inability to move past the influence of her deceased controlling parents.

Marwood’s extreme sense of place makes both contemporary Britain and the Ark seem both appealing and appalling sites to live. Both places can easily be considered a poison garden, depending on a person’s perception as Marwood parallels life at the Ark and the stifling, unforgiving home rules by religious fervor in which Sarah and Somer had been raised.

An Edgar winner for her “The Wicked Girls,” Marwood again shows a mastery at creating new worlds.