Monday, April 28, 2014

The Poison Diaries by Maryrose Wood

Title: The Poison Diaries
Author: Maryrose Wood
Publisher: Harper Collins
Rating: WORTHY!

Based on an idea by The Duchess Of Northumberland (who maintains a real garden of poisonous plants at her stately residence in the north of England, Alnwick Hall), this novel is in many ways a re-telling of the fictional tale of the slavery and subsequent liberation of Eve in the Garden of Eden. But if all you ever read is vampires, werewolves, and angels, then don’t venture into this garden. The raw power of nature will be outside of your comfort zone, and you won’t be able to handle a tale as subtle, seductive, insidious, and profoundly different as this one is.

If I have a complaint about his novel, it’s in the form of this question: Do YA authors honestly believe that it’s a capital offense to pen a YA novel about a female main character and not tell it in first person present PoV? I can’t think of any other reason why they would so spastically, robotically, and with tedious persistence write all such novels this way (and make them trilogies to boot). Usually such novels are awful. Once in a while (as is fortunately the case here) we get one that's done well, but even in this case the author is hoist by her own pen when it comes to a point in this story where she's forced to tell it from the perspective of another character. That was really clunky and could have been comfortably avoided had she only the smarts and courage to break this sorry mold and tell it in third person throughout.

The first similarity to the Biblical fable of Adam and Eve is that we begin with an innocent girl, living in a garden, overseen by her god-like father, who in many ways has power over life and death. There is no tree of the knowledge of good and evil here, nor one of everlasting life, but there is a dangerous garden of poisonous plants to which Jessamine (the Eve of the tale) is forbidden entry. The entire story is about the danger of a little knowledge, and the greater danger of ignorance, about innocence, and about temptation and deceit.

There is also a strong element of the devilish here - in the traditional sense. No serpent tempts Eve, but the poisonous plants tempt Adam, who shows up in the form of a boy of Jessamine's age, and who is known as Weed. For me, he was difficult to classify. Outside the protective confines of the garden, he was considered a witch (or insane - or both), and brought to Jessamine's father, Thomas Luxton, who is an apothecary, because Weed appeared to have knowledge of the medical uses of plants. Initially, I could not decide if Weed was a personification of nature, or if he was merely highly attuned to it.

He is a major frustration to Luxton, and a source of growing attraction for Jessamine. He's frustrating because, despite what the Judas figure said when he handed-over Weed to Luxton for judgment, Weed appears not to have any knowledge of herbal remedies which he could share, yet when he's under pressure, a simple walk through the garden seems to imbue him with sufficient knowledge to suggest a cure, or at least a palliative for the ailment in question.

At first, in the tail-end of winter, Weed lives below ground in the basement of his host's home, but as spring perks up the plant life around him, so too does weed come to the surface and blossom. He starts enjoying the outdoors, and long walks with Jessamine, during which he displays an intimate knowledge of the plants they encounter. She discovers that he's easily angered by her collecting of these plants for her father, as though she's committing murder. He's loathe to eat anything until he learns to give thanks to nature before he eats; then he starts to put on weight and grow strongly and healthily, but he seems far more in love with nature than with humanity, and this is a source of frustration and anger in Jessamine.

Things really come to a head when Jessamine's father is to be gone for a few days. He's barely out the door, and Jessamine and Weed are barely dressed, both of them appearing to be drugged, if not with love. How did this happen? And how is it that Jessamine's father returns so suddenly, and so unexpectedly, and behaves so oddly?

Far from being angry, he decides that his two charges are sufficiently in love that they must be wed, but before this can happen, Jessamine becomes seriously and unexpectedly ill, and it seems that the only thing which can save her Weed's willingness (or foolishness) to put himself at grave risk by communing with the residents of the seductively poisonous garden. It’s then, and only then, that we learn how truly powerful the garden is and why Thomas Luxton should never have corralled such a diverse array of poisonous plants in such close quarters. The term "plant suggestion" takes on a whole new meaning at this point, and the nature of Weed's relationship with nature becomes as disturbingly apparent as the devious motives of Jessamine's father.

I recommend this novel as a fascinating and alluring read. Aside from the aforementioned issue with person, it was a well-written, easy, and entertaining read. The only other problem I had with it is that it is apparently the start of a series, with Nightshade being the sequel. For me, this spoils a perfectly good novel. Sad as the ending might be in many ways, I don’t believe it called for a more than likely sadder sequel. I like this novel, but I feel no need to line the pockets of Big Publishing™ by literally buying into a trope series when it isn’t necessary. I think that would spoil it for me, but do read the first one if you want a different experience from your humdrum YA fiction and your YA romance.

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