The Sick Rose, By Erin Kelly

A mystery that digs deep into the past
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The Independent Culture

The term "gardening mystery" makes the heart sink. Bodies under the buddleia and much improbable botanising by tweedy ladies come to mind. Erin Kelly, however, produces a version just as dark as any of the Scandinavian noir novels currently so fashionable.

Louisa, seeking escape from a frightening past, finds work on a project to restore the gardens of an Elizabethan stately home. In a way, it is a natural progression from her hippy youth selling herbals and essential oils in the vanished Kensington Market. But it was during that wild phase that she met Adam, lead singer with a band. Louisa becomes Adam's girlfriend, but she has rivals, and uneasy relationships with other members of the group. Her love-affair ends in tragedy, and ever since she has been on the run from her past. On the garden project, she is living in a ramshackle caravan, taking to the bottle now and again to deal with her memories.

Also working in the Elizabethan grounds is a young man with an extraordinary physical resemblance to the long-lost Adam. He, in turn, is trying to escape from the past. Paul was a bright child, doing well at school, but got bullied until along came Daniel, a burly lad with a dog named Diesel. Daniel and Paul strike up a mutually protective friendship, for Daniel cannot read, and Paul does his schoolwork in return for protection. This relationship continues after they have left school, for Paul becomes necessary to Daniel to accompany him on various illegal expeditions. Paul is eventually forced into giving evidence against Daniel and is seeking a hiding-place from retribution.

A touching love-affair begins between the woman of 40 and the boy of 20, but the shadows cannot be dispersed. Louisa searches for the truth about Adam's strange resemblance to her lost lover: is it mere coincidence or something deeper? Kelly is excellent both on the nature of the relationship – intensely sexual yet genuinely loving – and the growing anxieties as the past threatens to overwhelm the couple.

She is good, too, on the realities of the project: the need to appeal for funding, to make the case to "heritage" types and appear in public. Neither lover wishes for any publicity, and these modern preoccupations form realistic entanglements to a brooding story and a real "can't put it down" mystery. This sick rose has got the grip of bindweed.