The Garden of Lost and Found by Harriet Evans – an immense of book of historical and contemporary fiction

 

 

A painting which captures so much, a house which is an escape and a challenge, a book of desperate situations; there is so much going on this novel that the reader must really concentrate but is greatly rewarded for the effort. Taking place in several times and in several places, it is held together by a painting of a garden and a house which is emblematic of so much for the characters. At least two casts of characters, at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century and the twenty first century, which look backward and forward, are linked by art and the concept of art. There is also tragedy, the importance of friendship, and the insidious effect of bullying whether physically or through the medium of the internet. There are characters which truly leap off the page, vivid descriptions of settings that they discover or rediscover, and the little incidents which fill a rich and complex text which cannot be hurried. A substantial book on many levels, I was so grateful to be given the opportunity to read and review this novel for the tour.

 

The book opens with an otherwise idyllic scene, a garden and a special house in June 1918, but immediately Lydia Dysart Horner realises that she could have perhaps acted earlier to try to save the immensely famous picture called “The Garden of Lost and Found”.  This immensely famous painting seemed to have had an almost mystical power on everyone who looked at it, revealing much about the glorious garden so lovingly described, but also focused on the figures of two children to be discovered in the foreground who seem to sum up enormous sentiment. Lydia or Liddy desperately realises that whatever compels her husband at this point is not simple; that he is suffering from the loss of people, of talent, of honour.

 

The scene shifts to the situation of a young woman, Juliet, in a London house, as she realise that her marriage to Matt is in trouble, her eldest daughter is suffering, and she is struggling to hold everything together.This particular day is significant as a sketch, the only remnant known of Horner’s famous painting, is to be auctioned by the company which she works for, and that she is a direct descendant of the painter. She is bitterly unhappy at work, where her misogynist boss is eager to get rid of her when she makes her feelings known about the sale and his attitude to her. A mysterious discovery gives her an alternative, as she suddenly realises that she can return to a house which dominated her otherwise unhappy childhood.

 

The slips between times are perhaps difficult to follow at times, but can be moving as we see the difficulties of life in Victorian times, when unutterably tragic situations mean that the very survival of women is uncertain, where children and young people are imperilled by attitudes, greed and lack of medical help. There is immense research behind this book, a great feeling for time and space, and a fantastic, almost visual eye for detail. This is a mature and complex novel which has so much weight in terms of handling complicated historical material, as well as contemporary pressures, especially on women, when they feel compelled to fight for the wellbeing of their children as well as themselves. This book has so much emotional weight to offer, but also the presence of hope as symbolised by a house and garden which has dominated the lives of generations. This is a book that is to be embarked on with readiness for discoveries, historical fiction at its best, and suspense tinged with sadness for those who lose much. A terrific read, recommended for so many reasons, and an experience not to be missed.    

 

 

We have been to see an extremely energetic production of Evita in a local theatre. With an incredible actor playing Eva Peron, marvellous dancing and amazing singing, this was certainly not to be missed in Long Eaton, Nottinghamshire. Having seen this in its original run in London many years ago, it remains a firm favourite, and also forms part of my proposed conference paper in June as I look at the legacy of Eva Peron. Wish me luck; it’s a huge subject.

Unlawful Things by Anna Sayburn Lane – A thriller based on a historical hunt for the truth

A thriller with an academic twist, this is a unique book dominated by some serious historical research, both as part of the plot and the knowledge that was needed to create it. Sayburn Lane has created a trail of academic discovery which gives a real challenge to the characters to discover a radical explanation for a contemporary obsession, against a very real danger to today’s British society. With some brutal episodes, this is not merely an intellectual puzzle; real danger and violence follow the main characters as some seek to profit from fear of the different. I soon realised that this is a fascinating and compelling book which held my interest throughout a dense plot, and I was very grateful to receive a copy to read and review.

The book opens with a narrative of a stabbing attack in Deptford, and the realisation that it is an ironic place to be stabbed. The action then goes back by two weeks, to show Helen Oddfellow, leader of historical walking tours in London, Phd student and friend of Crispin, a retired actor with a past. She is contacted by Richard, who has unearthed a reference to the playwright Kit Marlowe, and has seen an article in a local paper which mentions Helen as a Marlowe expert. Younger and more interesting than she had expected, she joins in his research to clear the name of an ancestor of the Cobham family, visiting the archives of Dulwich College and the Parker library at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. Their investigations do seem to be getting close to a dangerous discovery however, and there are threats. Meanwhile a young reporter called Nick who wrote the original article about Helen witnesses an attack on a new mosque by a far right group. He is injured, and soon realises that this is but the tip of a very dangerous anti Muslim force. As he investigates, he too finds himself in some danger, and he overlaps with the hunt for Marlowe references. This is not a gentle academic tiff; there are some fairly brutal scenes and some violent and sudden twists as the two investigations become more complex.

This is a book which I read quickly, as I was so keen to find out what happened next. I found the historical research fascinating, but can see that it may be a little confusing for someone not so interested in Elizabethan politics. Having said that, the author is very competent at anchoring the plot in the sort of twenty first century politics that means that certain groups in society struggle. There are some points at which the narrative gets very convoluted, but the character of Helen grounds it well in a sort of bewildered yet determined way. This is a densely written book, full of incidental details of a contemporary London that seems real. I really enjoyed this book, found the characters well drawn and generally fascinating, and was very intrigued by the puzzle at the heart of the book. I recommend it to those who like their thrillers based in a detailed story with some elegant twists and turns, some of which are shocking and memorable.

 

Last night we had a Pancake Party in honour of Shrove Tuesday, the last day before the beginning of Lent. Many scrumptious pancakes were consumed, people came along and enjoyed meeting old and new friends, and a good time was had by all. Then straight into a choir practice! It’s a great life provided you don’t weaken! We are now looking forward to another day in London, and are trying to find things to do. Having been to Persephone Books a few weeks ago, I am fighting the urge to look out other lovely bookshops, but finding time to read my haul is a little tricky if I am honest…