I choose new books in a variety of ways. Over the last year, I drove frequent round trips to the bay area and became a big fan of audiobooks. Earlier this month, while roaming iTunes, I came across this description of The Forgotten Garden:
A foundling, an old book of dark fairy tales, a secret garden, a maze, an aristocratic family, a love denied, a mystery – The Forgotten Garden is a captivating, atmospheric, and a compulsive listen about the past, ghosts, family, and memories…
Ghosts, memories, identity – these are hot-buttton themes for me lately, and I did the download. As I got into the story, I wanted to study certain passages in detail, so being a newly-equipped Kindle wonk, I downloaded the eBook.
In 1913 London, a mysterious woman, “the authoress,” leaves a four-year-old girl aboard a ship bound for Australia, with strict instructions to wait for her on the deck. The authoress never returns. The child, who hits her head during the voyage, lands with no idea who she is.
A dockmaster takes her home, and he and his wife name her Nell. On her twenty-first birthday, the dockmaster tells Nell the story, plunging her into a search to learn who she truly is:
Pa’s secret had changed everything. His words had tossed the book that was her life into the air and the pages had been blown into disarray, and could never be put back together to tell the same story…This person she was, or thought she was, did not really exist. There was no Nell O’Connor.
Nell never quite unravels the mystery, but when she dies in 2005, with “The authoress…I was supposed to wait,” on her lips, her granddaughter, Cassandra takes up the search.
The book spans over a century, largely focusing on the years 1913, 1975 when Nell travels to England to search for her past, 2005 when Cassandra does the same, and the turn of the century, when we meet the authoress, the mysterious Eliza Makepeace, as an impoverished child in the London of Jack the Ripper. Eliza lives with her brother Sammy, a changeling….
A what??? A changeling – one of the strange creatures the fairies leave behind when they take a human child.
Some reviewers fault The Forgotten Garden for it’s slow buildup, its rambling style, its sheer length and focus on detail, but I think those very elements may add to the subtle strength of a story that can smoothly fuse what we think is real with what we think is not. This is not your typical urban fantasy, in the way that Buffy is urban fantasy. There are still places in Britain where you can walk outside on a moonless night and understand why people believe in other worlds. Cornwall, where Nell lived as a child, is one of them, and Morton brings this into her story.
It is often the custom these days, for books and movies to open with white-knuckle action. Perhaps that’s why I like audiobooks so much. Something about the speaking voice, its rhythms and pauses, slows us down enough to allow the teller to weave the tale. The point is magic, after all, and there are many ways to get there, some of them in danger of being forgotten.
Kate Morton’s website: http://www.katemorton.com/