Note: This review was first published in PCA/ACA Mystery & Detective Reading List (Fall 2016)
Puerto Rico runs deep with mystery and magic, the stories of which define the lives of those who live on the island and believe in its magic and beauty. It’s a perfect setting for Samantha Mabry’s debut novel, A Fierce and Subtle Poison. The novel tells the story of Lucas, who spends summers in Puerto Rico with his father, a hotel magnate. Lucas loves listening to the stories the local senoras tell about the ghosts and spirits in the old house— Calle Sol— surrounded by a wall and garden where a scientist once lived with his wife and is now home to a green-skinned girl who grants wishes to those who toss them over the wall.
Lucas starts dating a local girl who one night throws a wish over the wall of the house and the next day she goes missing. She is the latest in a series of girls who have disappeared. Through a series of events, Lucas starts to blame the green girl and the local curse. Soon, he meets the girl in the garden, Isabel, who has lived her life shut away from the world, and he starts to explore the secrets of Isabel, her scientist father, and the magic of Puerto Rico.
Like Lucas as outsiders to this land of mystery and enchantment, we watch with him as the mysteries around the disappeared girls, Isabel, and her father unfold. We also learn of mysteries surrounding Lucas’ mother and his time of the island. All the while, unsure of our place in this land of mystery and the story Mabry weaves.
Mabry’s novel draws from Hawthorne’s short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter” as well as work of writers such as Gabriel García Márquez. She beautifully connects magical realism to modern mystery with rhythmic writing and a richness of text and imagery. Puerto Rico as a character is the richest and most complex within the novel. Although we learn of Lucas and his longing to be part of the community in which he will always be considered an outsider, we do not learn enough about Isabel and by the end of the novel we want to know more. Yet, even with this lack of character development, the beauty of the language and structure of the novel make it a strong debut work. I look forward to reading more of Mabry’s work in the future.