Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 240 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Jennifer Clement is an astonishingly good writer. Her simple melodic prose style marks her out as a poet — she has several anthologies published and is co-founder and director of the San Miguel Poetry Week — and The Poison That Fascinates, her second novel, is one of those books that holds you enthralled throughout and then leaves you bereft when you finish it.
Set in Mexico City (where the author, herself, lives), this is a story about loss: the loss of family, the loss of love, the loss of objects, the loss of a past way of life and, finally, the loss of sanity.
The third person narrative focuses on Emily, who lost her mother at a young age and was raised by her father, “a quiet and reserved man”, in a big country house built by her great-grandfather “over one-hundred years ago when he came to Mexico from Britain”. The family’s fortune, now much diminished, was made from silver mining, and some of that money went in to the creation of a Catholic orphanage, where Emily now works part-time.
Emily’s life is relatively simple and ordered, as she divides her time between Rosa of Lima Orphanage — which is headed by Mother Agata, a gentle woman of whom everyone is very fond, “the kind of woman who sees swans when she looks at geese” — and the university, where she is studying history and is doing her thesis on the lives of saints. In her spare time she “collects facts like some people collect stamps, coins or stones”.
She also likes to read about mysteries, detective stories and assassins, especially female assassins, and has two notebooks filled with facts on women criminals that she keeps in her bookcase in her bedroom. Emily knows that most women who kill are ‘black widows’ or ‘medical murderers’. They kill for money, revenge, or commit ‘mercy’ or ‘hero’ killings. They are mostly gentle killers who prefer poison rather than risk physical confrontation.
Interestingly, Emily’s “notes” punctuate the end of each chapter, so as you read the book the gentle peacefulness of Emily’s life is seen in stark contrast to the murders upon which she is so fascinated.
But later, when Emily begins to discover objects mysteriously rearranged in her room — drawers pulled open, pillows on the floor, a dress taken out of her closet and put on the bed — it looks like her tranquil existence may be under threat. When her long-lost cousin Santi appears on the scene, bringing dark family secrets with him, it all comes to a rather shocking and unexpected head…