To Lucas Knight the island of Puerto Rico has always been one richly woven tapestry, threaded with the lore of mysterious tales and fantastical happenings. Having spent the whole of his childhood summers in San Juan he regards the lush locale as a second home, and he’s well versed in the myths senoras tell to color it in. Perhaps most intriguing to him is stories of the house at Calle Sol; enshrined by a twelve foot wall and permanently hidden under the cloak of plants. They say a scientist lives there, so obsessed with work that it drove his wife to death. Others alleged a poisonous child was born there, one with green skin and leaves for hair. Now at the age of seventeen Lucas is too old for accounts of fiction, and has long since forgotten the anticipation of throwing a wish over the cursed fence. He’s far more invested in haphazardly avoiding his father, bumming around with local boys, and delighting their sisters under the guise of mainland charm. But when one such girl goes missing, and Lucas is implemented in her murder, a note is slipped under his door. A note that cryptically claims to know the whereabouts of ‘the disappeared girls’. With that he’s once again enchanted under the spell of a house long since lost to the ages, this time hell bent on discovering the secrets it holds. Part murder mystery, part magical realism Samantha Mabry’s debut A Fierce and Subtle Poison will sweep you into its arms from the get go. But does it live up to the acclaim of critically and commercially successful Bone Gap?
As I first dug my teeth into the richly imagined world of A Fierce and Subtle Poison, it became clear to me the story I held was one years in the making. Debut author Samantha Mabry describes her homeland of Puerto Rico with tender love and care, taking special pains to magnify each, seemingly minute, detail. Though in most cases setting is an arbitrary concern with little bearing over the story, in such whimsical tales as the one at hand I need to be able to breath the world: from mouthwatering tastes and knee weakening smells, to colors so rich they bleed off the page. And San Juan is as vivid as they come, a perfect breeding ground for the musings of Old Wives. With this I expected the island adage to be top notch, yet another aspect Mabry did not fail to deliver upon. Furthermore, I felt that the addition of folklore made the story’s transition from contemporary to magical realism seamless, and prevented the jarring change in pace that often holds me back from enjoying books of a similar vein. My absolute favorite part of the story though was protagonist and narrator Lucas. This admiration for his multifaceted personality is largely due to Mabry’s adept characterization, presenting him as a self-aware rich kid on the path to redemption. It was a perspective I’d never seen tackled before, and one that easily could’ve led to alienation in less skillful hands. Lucas’s narrative was also aided by spot on writing that, while beautiful, is incredibly fluent and reads like a dream. Unfortunately though, Mabry’s first novel couldn’t quite hit all aspects out of the park, and for that my rating slipped to three stars.
In my opinion the biggest, most irreconciable flaw of A Fierce and Subtle Poison is the pacing. Not so much that the middle lagged, or the beginning was an info dump, as this story really is told at break-neck speed, but something entirely unique. That is to say, in a span of 278 very short pages, Mabry near instantaneously went from setting up the plot to being almost at the height of the climax. Readers had just been thoroughly introduced to Isabel (the subject of our whole storyline), when suddenly we’re in the thick of rescuing one of the aforementioned ‘disappeared girls’. She’s arguably the most important character, yet I knew absolutely nothing about her, and could care less about her fate. The lack of depth on Isabel’s part also meant that the books two biggest plot points went largely unresolved. We know from the get go she has a hand in the rash of vanishings on the island, but we never truly find out her motive or reasoning. Without that perception it made the whole ‘mystery’ side of the story seem flippant and pointless. Alternately the magical realism billing is a bit of a stretch as the curse behind Isabel’s tragedy is never elaborated upon and only serves as a distinction to set A Fierce and Subtle Poison apart from other new realeses. Mabry had a strong platform to jump from, but something was definitely lost in translation with the blending of the two genres, as neither received the care they needed to catch my attention. With 50 extra pages I doubt any of this would have been an issue, but without the necessary rising action I just felt underwhelmed by what was set up to be a strong capstone to an otherwise great debut.
It’s always hard for me to review magical realism as it’s not one of my favorite genres, and perhaps a fan of this style would have a higher opinion than mine. However that’s not to say I would never pick up a book again by Samantha Mabry, as she certainly has a gift for words that I would love to see put to use with a different story.