Sunday, 8 May 2016

A Fierce and Subtle Poison by Samantha Mabry

Everyone knows the legends about the cursed girl--Isabel, the one the señoras whisper about. They say she has green skin and grass for hair, and she feeds on the poisonous plants that fill her family’s Caribbean island garden. Some say she can grant wishes; some say her touch can kill.

Seventeen-year-old Lucas lives on the mainland most of the year but spends summers with his hotel-developer father in Puerto Rico. He’s grown up hearing stories about the cursed girl, and he wants to believe in Isabel and her magic. When letters from Isabel begin mysteriously appearing in his room the same day his new girlfriend disappears, Lucas turns to Isabel for answers--and finds himself lured into her strange and enchanted world. But time is running out for the girl filled with poison, and the more entangled Lucas becomes with Isabel, the less certain he is of escaping with his own life.

Goodreads description

This novel is another example of magic-realist mystery fiction. It is also a book for the young adult market, so let me start this review with a word of caution: I am not remotely a young adult. I am a middle-aged woman in her late fifties, so I am definitely not the book's primary market.

The mystery angle is that girls go missing on the island of Puerto Rico, only to wash up on the beach covered with sores. When the latest girl is the central character's new girlfriend, he finds himself drawn into a desire to find out what happened to her. Is someone killing these girls and if so, why? The magical-realist angle is present in two ways: firstly the cursed girl herself and secondly the other stories told by the señoras about the spirits of the island. 

The idea of a heroine who is poisonous and who needs to be surrounded by poisonous plants is not a new one - we encountered it a couple of years ago in Lisa van Allen's The Night Garden. It is handled well in this novel and fits with the lush vegetation of the Caribbean. The Puerto Rican traditional tales are less to the fore - there are hints in the novel about them but their contribution to the story is not fully developed. 

I found the mystery in the novel disappointing. There is no attempt to develop false leads. The murderer's identity was obvious early on, indeed was something of a cliche. The murderer's attempt to implicate the central character was also predictable. 

The central character, Lucas, is not particularly likeable.  He is an alien in the island and at the same time is alienated from his American family. He can see how much his father, and by default he, is disliked by the locals, but he still sometimes behaves as a typical rather selfish and spoiled Western teenager. Although he talks about his distress over his girlfriend's death, he doesn't really display much in the way of grief. However, faced with the disappearance of a little girl and the determination of Isabel, the cursed girl, Lucas steps up to the mark. 

I received this novel free from the publisher in return for a fair review

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