Callie and her Australian friends haven’t all been together for a decade. When the eight of them decide to have a reunion, and hike through remote and mountainous landscape in New Zealand, far from civilization, and with no phone signal, you just know that it isn’t going to go according to plan. It’s such a great set-up for a thriller, and the author creates a wonderful sense of menace and foreboding from the start with the opening scene.
To begin with, meals around the camp fire, and sleeping in tents, are fun for some, but tricky group dynamics quickly emerge which go back to their school days. These include longstanding tensions and rivalries and – inevitably – people who do not get on. The fitness levels of the group members vary, meaning that some quickly struggle with the uncompromising regime of trek leader, Bryan. Then, when shocking and sinister events start to occur, loyalties with the group are tested. Each person has to figure out who they can trust, and one by one each comes under suspicion. Which is worse, to know it’s one of them or that someone is following their trek? As the story progresses through a series of twists and turns, secrets come tumbling out of the undergrowth, and each person in the group is reminded of the tragedy at school all those years ago, of which they were all a part. What I found psychologically interesting about this aspect of the plot was that each person has responded differently to this tragedy, just as each of them copes in their own way with the trek.
One of the things which attracted me to Poison Bay was the setting and I adored the vivid descriptions of the scenery. Pollard conveys brilliantly its remoteness, its beauty and dangers, and the weather. The clever, multi-sensory details pulled me into the story and I felt as if events were unfolding in front of me. I felt the discomforts and pains of the group as they trudged through the cold and rain. One of the cover quotes describes it as an ‘eco/wilderness thriller’ and I agree. The author uses the New Zealand landscape, Shadow Land, and the inclement weather, as more than just a backdrop. It is integral to the plot, and forms part of the conflict, continually challenging the characters on their hastily-agreed-to trek. The sub-plot with Sergeant Hubble and the mountain rescue operation adds additional suspense and scenes with relatives back in ‘civilisation’ provide good contrast.
With so many characters, it is always a challenge for an author to make them not just distinctive but well-rounded. There are some real gems here, keenly observed and real. I liked Callie. I found Rachel interesting because of her diabetes, and conservationist, Bryan, is terrific as the weird leader of the group. Hubble fits in well, as a strong character who isn’t connected to the friends, and who combines a maverick spirit without being a loose cannon (which avoids cliché).
If you’re looking for a thriller with a ‘fresh’ setting, I highly recommend Poison Bay. It’s well plotted, the landscape descriptions are transporting, and the characters could be anyone’s school friends.
My review copy was obtained from NetGalley. With thanks to the author.
Vicky Newham © 2015