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Review: “This Poison Heart”: Deadly Plants and Long-Kept Secrets Take Root in Upstate New York

Cover of "This Poison Heart" (Photo Credit: Shianne Henion / ASP)

By Shianne Heinon | September 13, 2021

Deep in the woods behind an old manor, a garden of skeletal and deadly plants grow ever anxious for their chance at revival. With an intricately woven plot of Greek mythology and long-kept secrets, “This Poison Heart” is the perfect novel for those who adore dark-academia.

Kalynn Bayron’s second novel is set in the small town of Rhinebeck, New York, right along the Hudson River. It was released June 29, 2021 by Bloomsbury Publishing.

Briseis Greene is a unique girl. Starting from when she was a child, she has always had an affinity for plants. She could grow them with the touch of her finger. Based on her mood, the plants respond by growing out of, or shrinking into, their pots. Everywhere she goes, she draws the attention of the trees, flowers, ivy, and most of all, plants filled with poison.

The action starts when a property lawyer shows up to the doorstep of Briseis’s Brooklyn apartment. The lawyer, Mrs. Redmond, informs her and her moms that Briseis has inherited the estate of her deceased aunt, Circe Colchis. After hesitancy, and a hefty discussion with her moms -- as Briseis is an adopted child -- she decides that the three of them can spend their summer there, to see if this is a place where they want to live.

Bayron captures Rhinebeck’s smallness with vivid descriptions of what upstate New York is like, such as the imagery of vivid farm lands, forest-covered roads, and main street shops. I could tell Bayron took her time while researching because she writes about several known places in the town. One is the chocolate shop that Briseis and her friend Karter pass, called Samuel’s Sweet Shop. The chocolaterie is quite the tourist spot in the town, along with the Beekman Arms Inn, the oldest inn of America.

While clearing out their “new” old home, Briseis discovers that one of the keys she wields is actually to a garden behind the house. She travels deep into the forest beyond, where poisonous vines open up a path for her and guide her to the coveted garden. Dead limbs of gorgeous plants align the garden floor, and in the back, guarded by what’s known as the moon gate, resides a cultivation of plants so deadly an average human could not breathe them in. Or else they die.

This, among the secrets Briseis discovers about her dead ancestors, paved the way for Bayron to craft a story that is unusual for magical realism due to its uniqueness. In “This Poison Heart,” Rhinebeck is filled with strangeness, such as a creepy medical examiner, a vanishing girl, and an old man with a knife. The suspense of these strange characters kept me turning the page, wondering who they were, what purpose they had, and how they influenced the story.

Bayron keeps a steady pace throughout the book, using interesting plot points to keep the reader engaged with what’s going to arrive next. An intriguing moment occurs when Briseis finds a painting of a woman named Medea, who in Greek times, was a follower of Hecate. This starts Briseis on a scavenger hunt to find the truth of this woman, and what ties she may have to her.

In that moment, my fingers flew through the pages, absorbing as much of the story as I could. The desperation to know more absorbed the hours of my days reading this. Bayron kept revealing layer after layer of details that, though answered some questions, left me having more. Such as, what is the purpose of the Colchis’ poison garden? What did this have to do with their hidden secrets? What did the townspeople know?

Among the fascination of Greek history and plant magic, the relationship between Briseis and her moms was a key component to this tale. The three of them have such natural love for one another, and are so tightly knit, it creates a comforting atmosphere for Briseis, especially in the thicket of conflict. Mom and Mo are accepting of Briseis for her affinity with plants, they always put her needs and comfort before their own.

Mom and Mo showcase the true foundation of family, allowing not only comfort for Briseis, but for readers, too. Their comical dynamics made every conversation with them lighthearted and full of love. And when serious topics arise, they always end with hope. It brought comfort to me as a reader, because even when I was unsure of who had Bri’s back, at least I knew Mom and Mo did.

A part within this book that did not strike well was the romance between Briseis and Marie, who comes into the story about a third of the way through. Although, the romance between them is not what’s important to the story, due to the overarching presence of the mysterious Medea.

Continuing on, there is a lack of chemistry between Briseis and Marie, among the red flags that the latter arose. Marie lies about her age, allowing Briseis to think she’s around 16. The truth is, she’s immortal, so she’s stuck at the age of a teenager. Among that falsity is the way Marie pleads to Briseis about trust. She and other characters have many secrets, to which I cannot trust any of them. Neither should Briseis, yet she is a young girl without friends in a new town. She wants acceptance desperately. Marie very easily latches onto that. It rubs me the wrong way. So, if you are looking for a novel about two girls falling in love, this is not the book for you.

Overall, I rated “This Poison Heart” four stars on Goodreads. Though I loved the story and familial bonds, the ending was rushed. With sixteen pages left, there was still so much at stake for Briseis and her family. The conflict continuously rose, to which I pondered when it would resolve, if ever. The pacing of the book did not match the third act conflict, especially when so much of the story revolves around Briseis trying to figure out the truth of Medea and her Colchis relatives, of her purpose to the poison garden. So many questions were left unanswered, to which I hope is fulfilled within the upcoming sequel.

With that in mind, the ending of the book ends on a strong, jaw-dropping cliffhanger. In the third act, new information kept spilling, and then it just stopped, leaving me wanting more.

The second book, “This Wicked Fate”, is set to be released in 2022. For now, you can pick up a copy of “This Poison Heart” and discover this deadly world at your local bookstore.

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