Once again, I fell for the Amazon recommendation, and once again read the book on a Kindle without any of the cues that packaging provides. It’s sort of like discovering a band on Pandora: you are responding directly to the music (or the novel) while ignorant of its cultural context. So what does it mean that even when I’d finished it, I wasn’t quite sure what Kate Morton was trying to do? Is The Forgotten Garden a gothic? A family saga? A sprawling romance? It lacks the true creepiness of The Little Stranger (also lacks the keen social commentary) and the effortless warmth of Rosamund Pilcher (despite the Cornish setting). Most interesting, it links up with A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book in that one of the central characters, Eliza Makepeace, is the author of a volume of fairy tales, several of which are included in the narrative.
The plot basically turns around a mystery: who is the little girl named Nell, who was found sitting on a dock in Brisbane in 1913? Well-dressed, well-brought up, she has crossed the sea from England completely alone, despite being only four years old. Morton fractures the narrative, setting portions in the early twentieth century, in 1975, in 2005, through the points of view of Nell’s mother, granddaughter, and Nell herself. Morton has pretty good control of the exposition: a fact will be revealed in one time frame and carry forward to the next time frame, where its implications move you further along. The prose is serviceable, and the mimicry of the fairy tales seems pretty good, though not exactly riveting. Morton does a good job, though, of varying the storytelling style according to the character and time period: I especially enjoyed Eliza’s evil landlady Mrs. Swindell, who is related to every fairy-tale witch in the world, with her long bony fingers, sparse hair, and vile temperament. (Check the Dickensian last name, too…)
There is, of course, a walled garden, which prompts comparison to Frances Hodgson Burnett (who appears as a walk-on in a garden party scene, somewhat jarringly). The garden is overgrown, yet a magical place, and it is brought back to life by the wounded Cassandra, with the help of a local gardener (who just happens to be a former doctor, i.e. posh enough to be dreamy).
I think my urge to be critical about The Forgotten Garden is rooted in disappointment. I was intrigued by the opening, by Morton’s apparent willingness to leave the reader wondering, by her attempt to weave together the contemporary/naturalist and the Victorian/sensational. But they didn’t stay woven, really, and the ending was distinctly happily ever after. Perhaps I thought I’d stumbled on a novel with the magic of A.S. Byatt’s Possession, and I’m resentful that The Forgotten Garden didn’t quite deliver.