There are places where old stories linger close to the surface, and a longing for magic is rewarded with revelations both strange and beautiful. Samantha Mabry's debut novel offers up a lush vision of just such a place, providing an atmospheric glimpse into a Caribbean island that runs deep with mysteries, while simultaneously asking us to consider the cost of that glimpse.
Puerto Rico feels like home to Lucas, who spends every summer on the island with his hotel magnate father. He loves the beaches and hanging out with his local friends, but most of all he is enchanted by the stories that the old señoras tell about ghosts and spirits — and especially the tale of a house surrounded by a wall and an impenetrable garden, once inhabited by a cruel scientist and his neglected wife, now home to a curse and a green-skinned girl who grants wishes.
One night, a local girl Lucas is dating throws a wish over the wall. When she goes missing the following day — the latest in a string of missing girls — Lucas starts to wonder if the curse might be to blame. He soon discovers that the mysterious green girl in the garden is named Isabel. She has lived her whole life shut away from the world, and the deeper Lucas ventures into her secrets, the less certain he is that he will be able to save anyone — even himself.
Lucas is the protagonist of Poison, and when I first read it, I thought that was because the book uses the Nathaniel Hawthorne story "Rappaccini's Daughter" (about a scientist, his daughter and a poisonous locked garden) as a framework — and that story is told from a young man's point of view. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder if Lucas is intended to make us come at the story from the perspective of an outsider because that echoes our approach as readers. We are asked to consider what harm Lucas does by inserting himself into a culture and a story that he doesn't understand, and making the narrative about him and his feelings instead of allowing us to see the story from the inside.
Unfortunately, this tactic falls short when I think about the unique perspectives Poison could have offered. Isabel is a compelling character, and the literal poison that consumes her serves as a poignant metaphor for the struggles that young women face in a world that doesn't always respect their bodies or their agency. In fact, this book is full of intriguing women who are unfortunately sidelined by Lucas, and I found myself wishing that the story had been told from their points of view — Isabel's in particular. Poison presents us with the very real problem of missing girls and women, and the harm that colonialism has done to them and to their communities, but its focus on Lucas prevents the story from having real teeth in this matter. In the end, we are left to mourn their voices without having had the chance to truly hear them.
"Rappaccini's Daughter" isn't the only work to leave a mark on Poison — it draws strongly from the tradition of magical realism, and at times feels like a love letter to authors like Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez. I first came to those writers as a young teen, and while I loved their stories and characters, I occasionally felt overwhelmed by complex politics and intergenerational family mythologies that were a little beyond my scope. A Fierce and Subtle Poison is a great doorway into magical realism; it uses many of the genre's tropes in a way that feels both modern and self-aware.
My longing for a little more bite aside, it's an impressive work; Mabry manages to combine a very romantic view of Puerto Rico with a critique of the poison that is sown by objectifying indigenous peoples and places. The book approaches its themes thoughtfully and with a visceral sense of place: Hurricane winds and the patter of rain against thick leaves are the driving rhythms at its heart. Readers looking for a different kind of fairytale and a sensuous setting will enjoy this foray into a strange and troubled garden.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is an editor at Goblin Fruit, and can be found discussing folklore and pop culture on the Fakelore Podcast.