It’s official — I am a Kalynn Bayron fan. Two books may seem too few to come to this proclamation but, as you can tell from my Cinderella is Dead review, she had me at hello. This Poison Heart makes her writing record a two-peat in my esteem, so please take the praise of the following review with this sentiment in mind.
I started this book armed with the same information anyone else in the book world likely has. Namely, that This Poison Heart is a The Secret Garden retelling where a Black teen girl has magic powers. I am happy to report that this is half false. Does the main character, Briseis, have magical powers? Yes. Is there a secret garden in the book? Also, yes. Is this a The Secret Garden retelling? No, thank goodness. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed reading The Secret Garden in fifth grade, but it has not ranked high on the books I’d like to see revamped for the modern age for several reasons. This Poison Heart capitalizes on one of the more intriguing aspects from the original: an old neglected estate sits on acres of land, including a gated, semi-wild secret garden. In Barron’s not-retelling, however, this estate sits in upstate New York, a two-hour drive from Briseis’ home in Brooklyn with her two mothers. There is no callous uncle or angry boy cousin waiting for her there. Instead, Briseis’ parents have to reckon with deciding to downsize to a one bedroom apartment in order to afford keeping their florist shop operational after a thousand dollar rent hike by their landlord — typical New York life — and a bad day. Briseis learns that her birth family (she has always known that she’s adopted) has left a paid off, utility and tax-free manor for her would seem like just the boon to offset their impending struggle, no?
Well, no and yes. Briseis has enjoyed the cloak that bustling Brooklyn life provides over her magical abilities which make the plant life around her track her movements like enraptured pets and offer her an immunity to poisons. Having been burned by the loss of friends because of the weird things she cannot explain, Briseis does not have any social attachment to her life in Brooklyn but is reluctant to leave the home she knows to start anew elsewhere. After talking it through, her family decides they’ll give the estate a chance and within a day or so there, Briseis finds out that her immunity to poison includes even some of the strongest poison plants — which are all conveniently grown in the estate’s secret garden.
Throughout the story she makes friends, gains a mysterious love interest, and even learns there’s a magical community of sorts in the region who all sought out the expertise of her birth family, the Colchis.’ The most ironic thing about Briseis discovery of this magical clientele is that they all seem to know about the secret garden, which belies the whole concept of it being a secret. However, she doesn’t have to look far for a mystery. When told about her inheritance, she was given a letter that leads her on a scavenger hunt to unlock the secrets behind her relatives’ deaths. Her birth mother died while Briseis was still young and the aunt who orchestrated Briseis’ inheritance mysteriously disappeared nearly a decade ago. Is there something about Briseis’ power or her family’s abilities in general that leads to early death?
All in all, I enjoyed the levels of magic and Blackness — Black people being free to mind their own business; Black people in loving queer relationships that no one bats an eye at; Black people owning large manors for generations; Black people living in a community with social services as first responders instead of police — that we get in this book. This book had me laughing outright in some parts and feeling dread in others. It covered some of my favorite things: seeing Black people in history where we never hear about Black folks being and seeing a Black child think nothing of reaching out to Black elders for all sorts of knowledge. This Poison Heart is a book to enjoy on the first read, notate in the rereads, and pump you up for what’s to come in its sequel. You should pick up this book!