Desert Isle Keeper
The Forgotten Garden
You know a book is good when nearly 600 pages seem to fly by in the blink of an eye. This very accurately describes my experience with The Forgotten Garden. Beautiful and bittersweet, this family saga roams from the turn of the 20th century to the modern day as it tells an intricate story of secrets, identity, and, ultimately, self-discovery.
The physical garden mentioned in the title lies at the heart of an intricate maze on an estate in Cornwall. To tell the history of the garden or its inhabitants in linear fashion would be to deprive readers of one of the singular glories of this book. The various stories in this novel are told in bits and pieces, jumping back and forth in time from the early 20th century to the 1970s and the current century. Rather than feeling jumpy, the narrative actually flows smoothly, allowing readers to gradually piece together bits of important information to solve the mystery just as the modern-day heroine does.
The book opens in 1913 aboard a ship bound for Australia. A small child has been left on the ship, told by a beautiful lady to hide until the lady returns for her. Except that she never does. We learn that the little girl winds up alone in Australia unable to tell anyone who she is. The dockmaster and his wife adopt the child informally, name her Nell, and raise her as their own. It is not until much later that Nell learns the truth – a revelation that permanently alters her world and sense of identity.
In the 21st century, we meet Nell’s granddaughter Cassandra, who appears to be in her 30s. Nell essentially raised her and Cass returned to live with her grandmother in her final years. During Nell’s final illness, Cass learns of Nell’s adoption from her great-aunts. This sends her on a quest to Cornwall, armed with the only clues to Nell’s identity that she can muster – the contents of a small suitcase found with Nell when she arrived in Australia, a deed to a mysterious property in England, and notes from Nell’s own unsuccessful investigation in England in the 1970s.
From these beginnings, a vast tale of identities lost and found and of deep family secrets begins to emerge. The characters in the tale are interesting, and most are quite likable, so one cannot help wanting to know the truth and to understand what made them the people they ultimately became. The revelations are not easily gotten, nor does everything come out all at once in a neat little package. Instead, pieces of the puzzle start to fall gradually into place one by one. It’s a richly textured reading experience and I felt truly sucked into the various worlds of Edwardian England and the modern day as I read.
Though the characters are primarily strong, I would have liked more insight into Nell as a person. Though Nell is interesting, it is much easier to feel drawn into the hearts and minds of Cass and some of the other characters. However, this author does excel at world-building. In addition to adding intriguing fairy tale flourishes to the mystery, she makes the Edwardian setting of the events leading to Nell’s journey feel very real and rather forbidding. She also makes Cass’s world come alive and her journey feels very real and immediate.
Though this tale contains many romantic elements (some ending more happily than others), it is still primarily women’s fiction. I normally do not buy hardbacks because of the price, but this story impressed me so much that I would gladly spend the money. If you like well-crafted and deeply moody sagas, The Forgotten Garden will probably be just your cup of tea.