Poison Bay by Belinda Pollard

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Belinda Pollard's debut novel tells the story of eight friends whose lives were shattered one fateful night ten years ago, when one of their own made a tragic decision. Reuniting in New Zealand for a hike to commemorate their mutual loss, Callie finds herself looking into the familiar faces she hasn't seen in a decade. Conservationist Bryan is heading the group, with outdoorsman Adam and handsome lawyer Kain among the crew, as well as Jack, now a reverend, whom no one ever gave much thought to; there's also petite nurse Erica, sweet-tempered Rachel, and dowdy, unassuming Sharon. What begins as a hopeful tribute and quirky reunion, however, soon becomes a crusade of nightmarish proportions as betrayals are revealed and someone among their group dies. Thrown into shock and at the mercy of the harsh mountain elements, Callie and her seven companions will risk everything to survive as loyalties are tested, truths are revealed, and the stark tragedy of their past finally catches up with them.

Poison Bay is the rare debut that feels as though it's being handled by a veteran; a testament, undoubtedly, to author Belinda Pollard's natural skill. From the very first scene she establishes the pulse-pounding sense of drama that will carry through to the novel's final pages. Suspenseful and nearly impossible to put down, the story grabs the reader's attention and keeps them guessing as deeper layers slowly begin to reveal themselves. The novel has a clear sense of being a survivalist story, terrifically researched so as to render the full menacing splendor of the New Zealand wilds; but in addition to making it out of the wilderness alive, Callie and her friends must also unravel a mystery as the realization dawns that there is a murderer among them. Back on land, Rachel’s mother along with kindly police officer Peter are on much the same path of questioning as they begin a desperate search-and-rescue operation. Motivations are considered, personalities dissected, every reasonable (and even the seemingly unreasonable) avenue explored.

Beyond that, Poison Bay is a diligent study of human behavior, of how tragedy can unhinge us and desperation can motivate us; it also examines the way we look at people, as Callie begins to understand her misguided teenage fancies and sees the merit in people she had always overlooked for their simplicity. It examines the goodness and the evil in its characters as well as the goodness and the evil at work in nature; an altogether well-rounded and beautifully executed novel. Pollard's diligent efforts in her research and her ability to weave a fascinating story are enhanced by her thoughtful prose, which envelopes the reader in every scene, whether describing the elements of the wilderness – alternately majestic and terrifying, sometimes both at once – or relaying the myriad emotions of her characters, their grief, fear, achievement, and torment both together and apart. Callie and Jack carry most of the story, both easily likable, honest characters, but everyone in the book comes to life with a certain memorable richness. I felt an instant chemistry with Poison Bay as a reader; that, coupled with its palpable suspense and cinematic detail, make it a story I would very likely return to.


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