Heaven’s Gate, The Peoples Temple of Jonestown, the Branch Davidians, the Rajneeshpuram community, Kashi Ashram, the Manson Family, and the Brethren. Just the mention of their names is enough to conjure images of fortified compounds, social isolation, bizarre behavior, and strict control. One might think that with the volume of well-documented cults of various sizes and beliefs in the real world, exploration of this phenomenon might be unnecessary in fiction. Crime fiction superstar Alex Marwood is here to stake her claim against this misconception. In The Poison Garden, Marwood manifests Plas Golau, a completely fabricated doomsday cult; one that manages to feel so incredibly real that readers will fear losing their own family members to its magnetic draw.
World-building is a concept that is far more prevalent in speculative fiction and fantasy writing than in the crime fiction arena, but Alex Marwood proves to be a powerhouse in that domain with The Poison Garden. In order to make this novel work, she had to create the environs of Plas Golau and readers will be able to tell that Marwood knows so much more about this unique community that what ultimately made it to the printed page. That said, there is enough depth on these pages to make readers feel as though they can visualize the people who would partake in this secluded society, feel as though they could find their way around the complex, and even relate to and understand some of their beliefs. But sadly, the concept of Utopia and Dystopia are simply two sides of the same tainted coin.
As The Poison Garden opens, Romy is the only surviving adult member of the community at Plas Golau. What happened to the others is slowly explored in backstory chapters that document Romy’s history with the group. In the current timeline, Romy finds herself in a mental health facility for several months of examination before being shuffled off to a halfway house – all in an effort to help her acclimate to a society she has never been a part of, one that she has very definite opinions of, and one that she can’t wait to escape from. The Plas Golau community had fractured and there is another compound Romy could go to, but in order to be granted entry, she has to find her half-siblings (one of whom is potentially “The One” – a successor to the current Plas Golau leader, Lucien.)
Those half-siblings, Ilo and Eden, now reside with Sarah Byrne, a school administrator who also happens to be their aunt. Sarah’s sister ran away to join the cult years ago and Sarah has made no efforts to find her, but when she hears of the tragedy that occurred, she feels an obligation to look after these innocent children. With her own troubled past, Sarah is about to embark on her toughest task yet. The children have been taught to fear the outside world. They have been told the land of the Dead is a place of misery, pain, delusion, and danger. Sarah is about to discover that the only person who can help her help them is the one person who has been where they have been, their half-sister Romy.
This is the basic plot outline of The Poison Garden, but the magic of the novel lies in the execution. Alex Marwood is not interested in condemning these cults, but rather in showing how echoes of their lives inside exist in our everyday world. It is sure to be controversial, but here readers are forced to realize the cult-like entities that surround us daily: religions, schools, hospitals, neighborhoods, and even families themselves. Each exists on its own terms and maybe society is delusional in thinking of ourselves as the “good people” doing the “right thing.” There is so much to unpack in this novel, that readers are going to need to – and want to – return to it over and over again. Alex Marwood is really intelligent in her choices throughout this novel, constantly letting each reader take from it what they need. And like all good literature, that take-away will be different each time a reader revisits The Poison Garden.
As with all of Alex Marwood’s previous novels, The Poison Garden is a book that will appeal to a wide variety of readers. In this novel, Marwood takes some standard genre tropes and twists them almost until they are unrecognizable, creating new avenues of exploration headed toward an ending that is as surprising as it is inevitable. This is not a tale that provides every answer nor ties everything into a nice little bow, but its hard to imagine that any reader would walk away dissatisfied with the journey this novel requires.
Disclaimer: A print galley of this title was provided to BOLO Books by a publicist. No review was promised and the above is an unbiased review of the novel.