In the Shadow Garden
Grade : C+

Liz Parker’s debut novel In the Shadow Garden has so much going for it. Eye-catching cover, fascinating premise, a decades-old mystery to solve. And there’s tea. Lots of tea. But some issues hold it back from earning a higher grade, and I wanted to like it more than I actually did.

The Haywoods and the Bonners, two of the founding families of the town of Yarrow, Kentucky, have hereditary magic. The Haywoods are able to see people’s emotions – represented by plants – in their auras, so someone disappointed might have dead leaves tumbling off their shoulders, which is an imaginative touch. The Haywoods can also draw grief out of people’s hearts and release the grief into the sensitive earth of their shadow garden, which transmutes such emotions into fruits with mystical properties.

The Bonner family has a gift as well, one derived from a long-ago Haywood gift of dark corn from the shadow garden. The Bonners, who own a successful distillery, use this corn to produce a bourbon which can take away memories, and each year there’s a bourbon festival where people gather to enjoy the bourbon and relinquish a painful memory (the “memory harvest”). Then, twenty years earlier, a Haywood was found murdered, a Bonner left town abruptly, and the people of the town forgot what had happened. But Kaden Bonner has now returned for the funeral of his abusive father, and a lot of buried secrets are about to come to light.

This is an amazing setup, and the book could have been a great read. But there are so many characters that I struggled to connect with them. On the Haywood side, there’s Maura, her daughter Irene, and Irene’s daughter Addison, plus Irene’s niece Quinn. On the Bonner side, there’s Sylvia and her sons, Nate and Kaden. Everyone except Nate has at least one chapter from their perspective, and these chapters tend to be short (Sylvia’s is three paragraphs long). As a result, many of the characters don’t rise beyond a few broad strokes; Nate is a cheater, Sylvia is a manipulative matriarch, and so on. Secondary characters don’t even register to that extent.

Also, some scenes that should be emotional are shortchanged by the style :

“You didn’t think it might be important to mention this?” Maura asked.
“I was going to,” Addison said. “After the funeral. I didn’t want you to change your mind about the rosemary.”
“Which is exactly what we should’ve done!” Maura said.
“Your grams is right,” Irene said. “You should have told us.”
“What about my tea-leaf reading?” Addison asked.
“Maybe you misread it,” Maura said.

It’s basically dialogue between talking heads, without any insight into these people’s minds and hearts. I felt distanced, and ended up skimming through scenes like this.

The mystery part of the story is gripping, and I enjoyed the twists as well as the foreshadowing. But the romance is less successful. Scarred by his family, Kaden gravitates to the Haywood women instead, and soon he’s drawn to Irene. Older couple, yay! And Kaden always treats people with honesty and respect. But about twenty years before, Irene was jilted by Nate Bonner. So when she starts falling for Kaden, she keeps telling herself that he’s a Bonner, and by the third time I read this he’s-a-Bonner condemnation, I just wanted him to find someone who wouldn’t keep blaming him for what his family is. Romeo and Juliet don’t work as a couple if Juliet frequently criticizes Romeo for being a Montague.

Ultimately, In the Shadow Garden was an uneven read. Readers in the mood for an aromatic blend of magical realism and dark family secrets might want to try this book anyway, because what it does well, it does very well. But its flaws mean I can’t quite recommend it.

Reviewed by Marian Perera

Grade: C+

Book Type: Women's Fiction

Sensuality: Subtle

Review Date : February 7, 2023

Publication Date: 09/2022

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Marian Perera

I'm Marian, originally from Sri Lanka but grew up in the United Arab Emirates, studied in Georgia and Texas, ended up in Toronto. When I'm not at my job as a medical laboratory technologist, I read, write, do calligraphy, and grow vegetables in the back yard.
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