The Poison Garden by Alex Marwood
They call us the Dead. Inside the Ark, the survivalist cult in The Poison Garden, main character Romy and her siblings are taught that all outsiders will be killed in an imminent but vague apocalypse and are already Dead, spiritually if not yet physically. Only the Ark will survive, ushered into the dark future by their beloved leader. At the open of this entertaining thriller, however, we find Romy dealing with that prediction turned on its head: The vast majority of the cult members are dead by mass suicide while we the Dead live on, the cult’s demise a media item soon forgotten.
While a somewhat shallow dive, The Poison Garden is the propulsive story of Romy and her sibling’s re-entry to society, spliced together with flashbacks that reveal surprises about how all the adults in their lives came to drink poisoned cider. Dramatic cult stories are always entertaining, I’ll admit, but the real treat here is the outsider perspective.
“My case worker’s little car feels like a rabbit overtaken by stampeding horses as we race up slopes toward the horizon. Great tracts of green land, majestic trees, briefly glimpsed houses lost among them, and, in the far distance, the sea. Then a river, then cranes and ships and building so large that, even in the distance, I can see that their cavernous interiors would swallow Plas Golau (the Ark) whole. .. In an hour, we will pass the place where I was born. If she stopped the car now, I could walk there in three days. From my new home, it would only take a day and a half. But maybe I’ll take the bus. They taught me how to take a bus in Weston, as part of my life-skills training.”
After all, Romy — at age 20, the cult’s only surviving adult — was isolated from the modern world since she was a toddler, training for the end-times rather than keeping up with technology. Given time, perhaps she could eventually shake off a lifetime of belief, but the secret that she was pregnant when she left the compound continues to tie her fate to the Ark’s dangerous ideology — and a dangerous splinter group now on the outside.
Some of the twists and turns of The Poison Garden were predictable, including a few revealed in flashback later in the novel. The parentage of Romy’s baby, for instance. Others were truly shocking as we see how far these young survivors will go for their beliefs. Hint: Pretty far! As a pregnant young woman on her own for the first time, Romy proves herself feisty almost to the point of feral, her survival instincts honed sharp by years of brainwashing. Her knife is even sharper.
Another treat was the character of Sara, the aunt who takes in Romy and her two half-siblings. Divorced and a product of the same dysfunctional family that drove her sister/Romy’s mom into a cult, Sara is tentative but fiercer than she knows. She’s an endearing figure, especially when she tries to understand rather than judge the kids’ worldview and admits when she makes mistakes.
While an enjoyable page-turner, The Poison Garden didn’t connect too deep on an intellectual level. For instance, the Ark’s belief system is simplistic: The end is nigh, everyone but us will die, and our leader’s child will be the One who brings about a better world. Such generalities allow the Ark to resemble as many real-world cults as possible, but their dogma was never clear enough for me to understand why characters were willing to live and die for their beliefs.
And most disappointing, the title of the book never came to complete fruition. As an off-the-grid community, every cult member had their assigned work, and Romy’s was an apprentice in the medicinal garden and infirmary. She knows her poisons as well as her medicines. That connection proved less important than I’d expected and was therefore a little disappointing.
Nonetheless, if Romy gets a sequel — and the ending leaves room for that possibility — I’m on board to see how this heroine continues her epic ass-kicking journey.