Friday, May 2, 2014

Book Review - Kate Morton's The Forgotten Garden

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton
Published by: Atria
Publication Date: January 1st, 2008
Format: Hardcover, 552 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

"Novels that moved back and forth between two time periods existed before Kate Morton—including my Pink Carnation books, of which the first came out in 2005—but she is undoubtedly the standard-bearer for the genre that has come to be known as “time-slip”, so I would be remiss if I didn’t mention her books here.

I chose The Forgotten Garden because it’s Victorian-set, but there are other similarities as well. In both That Summer and The Forgotten Garden, a modern heroine inherits a house in England and must uncover a mystery of which the key is an object from the past: in The Forgotten Garden, a book of fairy tales, in That Summer, a lost Preraphaelite painting." - Lauren Willig

Nell dies with an unanswered secret. A secret she bequeaths to her granddaughter Cassandra. Nell raised Cassandra ever since her own daughter abandoned her at Nell's little house in Brisbane back in the seventies. Nell's secret took her clear across the world to England, but answers were not forthcoming. Nell has felt a stranger in her own life since she learned from her father that she was a foundling, wandering the wharves of Australia. She was the answer to their prayers and so they kept her. On his deathbed he leaves the suitcase that was found with Nell. A suitcase with a very rare and beautiful book of Fairy Tales by one Eliza Makepeace. Nell takes the leap and heads to England in such of the one link she has, Eliza Makepeace. Her journey leads her to Cornwall and Blackhurst Manor. She gets an inkling as to her heritage and buys Cliff Cottage from the now broken up Blackhurst Estate, planing to return and find out who she is. She never returns.

Thirty years later Cassandra journeys to England following Nell's death, to Tregenna. Her life, like Nell's, is mired by shadows and memories. She has given up on her art, she has almost given up on life now that Nell is gone. The least she can do is come to this poky little cottage that she never knew existed and find out the truth about her grandmother. The beginning of Nell's story is back in the time when Dickens walked the streets. High above the Thames in a windowless room above Swindell's Rag and Bottle shop, Eliza Makepeace and her twin brother Sammy eek out a living after the death of their mother. They are poor but happy, with Eliza able to take their mundane and bleak lives and spin stories of pure magic. But their little hideaway is soon invaded. Her brother is killed playing a game they invented.

The bad man whom her mother always warned them of comes to take Eliza away. Far away from London to the cliffs of Cornwall. To Blackhurst Manor. The home her mother ran away from all those years ago and brought shame to by becoming pregnant by a sailor. Eliza's mother Georgiana also broke her brothers heart. Now Eliza spends her days with her Aunt and Uncle Linus and their sickly daughter Rose. In between all the visits and checkups from Dr. Matthews, Eliza is a fountain of stories and adventures that help to bring young Rose back to life. They grow together, as close as any sisters, till one day Rose journeys across the sea and falls in love with a young painter, Nathaniel Walker. Everything changes, and Eliza feels that she must make one last sacrifice. One last gesture to prove that she loves Rose more than anyone else.

Spanning over a hundred years and several generations of women, this book asks the question, can you live a fulfilled life if you don't know where you come from. While this quest would drive many, I think turning up on a dockside after a long sea journey and not knowing the how and the why would make me more than a little curious. Nell's father changed her life forever when he told her the truth. Instead of setting Nell free, the feverish quest that grips her is what drives the novel. Skipping back and forth between time periods we glean bites and pieces of the puzzle till at last all is revealed, or almost all, I still think there's more with that creepy Uncle Linus that we're not being told.

I had some issues with the book. The time periods where not very seamless, and when that first jump to Victorian times happens it changes the entire tone of the novel. It's as if Jack The Ripper himself has taken the narration away from the author and brought a dark, forbidding air that never quite leaves and is never fully satisfied. My mind would wander over all these gruesome possibilities and scenarios. Who was the bad man, whose baby was it really, is Blackhurst Manor the seat of the devil. Some of these answers I guessed right away, though Kate Morton added a twist here and there so I wasn't 100% spot on. But there were so many juicy ways she could have taken this plot and in the end I felt let down. The truth is far more mundane than my imagination wanted the story to be. Like Eliza's gift for weaving the perfect yarn, The Forgotten Garden had me thinking and plotting more than any book I've read recently. This book could have been spectacular, but at the close, it was a lackluster ending that brought dissatisfaction.

Also, a niggling aside. There is so much mention of the beautiful fairy drawings by Nathaniel Walker. Now, the endpapers of my edition have gorgeous drawings by Arthur Rackham. This does a disservice to the novel. While, yes, I will admit it's why I first picked it up, once I read the book I thought that a more unknown illustrator, more in keeping with the style of the book within the book was necessary. How about Charles Van Sandwyck? So you won't instantly be pulled out of the book by Rackham's distinctive style. Yes, every aspect of a book needs to be fully taken into account to make me happy.


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