Penguin Books, 2019, 391 pages
When nearly 100 members of The Ark, a sinister apocalypse cult, are found dead by poison at their isolated community in North Wales, those left alive are scattered to the winds with few coping skills and fewer answers. For 23-year-old Romy, who has never known life outside the compound, learning how to live in a world she has been taught to fear is terrifying.
Now Romy must start a new life for herself - and the child growing inside her. She is determined to find the rest of her family and keep her baby safe, no matter the cost. But as the horrors of her past start to resurface, she realizes that leaving her old life behind won't be easy. Outside the walls of The Ark, the real evil has only just begun.
Alex Marwood does not write cheery stories with hopeful endings. She writes grimbleak stories where almost everyone is terrible, the non-terrible people are mostly useless, and nobody really gets what they deserve.
Despite knowing what to expect from Marwood, because I've read all her previous novels, The Poison Garden was probably her bleakest work yet.
In the first chapter, most of the members of The Ark, a doomsday cult in northern Wales, die horribly, Jonestown-style. Only a couple of children, and pregnant, 23-year-old Romy, somehow avoided the mass poisoning. Then the story alternates between flashbacks, working its way from the beginning, when Romy's mother came to Plas Golau, Wales, with her infant daughter, and Romy's upbringing in the cult, and the present day, when Romy has been released from care and must learn to survive in the outside world.
Marwood's novels are part mystery and part psychological thriller. They aren't really whodunits, but there are always dark twists. The Poison Garden is no exception. We aren't told immediately how all those people got poisoned. We also find out that Romy, and the children who survived, may not have escaped the cult after all.
The Ark was a survivalist commune led by a charismatic leader named Lucien. They farm, do hard manual labor, but also learn medicine, engineering, herbalism, and hand-to-hand combat. They refer to outsiders as The Dead. Lucien taught them that the world was ending soon, that they needed to prepare for it, and that as part of that preparation, he was going to father "The One" — a golden child who would save them all.
Does this sound like a scheme for a dirty old man to bang lots of brainwashed young women? Bingo.
Marwood was clearly inspired by cult dynamics, and does her usual excellent job of characterization and plotting, making The Ark depressingly credible. Despite believing in an imminent but unspecified apocalypse and blindly following the words of some horny old goat with a silver tongue, the members of The Ark are not stupid or loony-tunes. Well, not entirely. We learn how cracks form in their beliefs, how schisms form in their ranks, and how very mundane concerns like jealousy, resentment, and spite will motivate even true believers to turn on one another.
Romy's aunt Sarah, who escaped an evangelical upbringing along with Romy's mother, is the other main character. Sarah is sympathetic, but something of a failure in life, recently separated and stuck in a dead-end job and not really prepared to take on a parental role to a couple of younger relatives who are creepily unsuited to the outside world. As Romy tries to navigate the world of The Dead, and Sarah tries to navigate the beliefs of her young cultist relatives, who remind her disturbingly of the childhood she escaped, things take a dark turn, and then darker.
Alex Marwood is an author I follow faithfully, as she hasn't written a lot of books and I've liked all of them. The story of The Poison Garden is a bit different from her previous ones, but the tone is similar — it's a no-feelgoods English noir about shitty people in a crapsack world.
Also by Alex Marwood: My reviews of The Wicked Girls, The Killer Next Door, and The Darkest Secret.
My complete list of book reviews.