"The Girl in the Garden" by Melanie Wallace
When June arrives on the coast of New England, baby in arms, an untrustworthy man by her side, Mabel—who rents them a cabin—senses trouble. A few days later, the girl and her child are abandoned. June is soon placed with Mabel’s friend, Iris, in town, and her life becomes entwined with a number of locals who have known one another for decades: a wealthy recluse with a tragic past; a widow in mourning; a forsaken daughter returning for the first time in years, with a stranger in tow; a lawyer, whose longings he can never reveal; and a kindly World War II veteran who serves as the town's sage. Surrounded by the personal histories and secrets of others, June finds the way forward for herself and her son amid revelations of the others' pasts, including loves—and crimes—from years ago.
I requested this book not just because the cover looked so appealing (although that was a large factor!) but because it sounded like it would be a complete contrast from the other novels with "girl" in the title that are out at the moment. And it is.
This is a novel to be read slowly. This is a novel which is about characters and relationships. This is a novel about the universal themes that affect everyone as they make their journey through life. I felt elements of Anne Tyler, Anita Shreve and Maggie O'Farrell seeping onto some of the pages as Wallace focusses a small community, gradually revealing what lies behind them and how their stories are interwoven with each other.
This is a perfect novel for those of us who like to people watch. In fact, some of the characters love to people watch too and it is Mabel who is uses her "sixth sense" to interpret the unhappy situation that June finds herself in at the beginning of the novel.
"She said her name was June. As though, it struck Mabel, she'd never had or no longer had a last name or a need for one........[Mabel] wasn't about to send her on her way with that, not that she and anywhere to go. Nor was Mabel about to discuss the girl's future, as her present was disastrous enough, the thought of it almost intolerable."
All the characters are likeable and in a way the novel is almost like a collection of short stories or character studies as you follow from one to the other, tugged gently along by the swell of the tide and aware of the undercurrent that links them altogether. The setting of the coast line is used very effectively to illustrate emotional turmoil, the sense of insignificance or failure and the isolation or sense of being lost that some of the characters feel.
".....the ocean- like life - simply beyond comprehension because of its magnitude, it's meaninglessness."
I do like a long sentence and I do like a lot of beautiful imagery so Wallace satisfied me with this on nearly every page. Although it is a relatively short novel, the writing is quite dense. Not only are there long sentences, but also long paragraphs. There is very little dialogue but this is a book about exploring the inner thoughts, feelings, fears and sadness of these carefully crafted characters; characters who appear reserved and understated yet are full of complexities.
Wallace's use of long sentences does mean that finding appropriate quotes and pulling out succinct examples for this review is tricky but I am going to share a few! The following quote is about June herself when she arrives at the coastal town.
"She gazed at the water dumbly, unable to make sense of it, too tired to be overwhelmed, not even fully realising that they'd reached an edge of the continent, unable to process the enormity of having come to the destination she'd chosen, because every cell in her body was crying out for sleep."
Although June appears to be our protagonist, for me I felt the book was actually equally about all the characters who feature. It almost like "The Girl in the Garden" is a story where the understudies take the stage and the lives of those who we usually overlook take their chance to speak; a chance for the lost, failing and reclusive shadows to win the affection, sympathy and care of the reader.
My favourite character was actually Iris. I thoroughly enjoyed the passages about her and found the ending of the novel very poignant and moving.
"I don't need to be nostalgic.....I'm not even capable of such a thing. And I'm not interested in seeing myself as someone I can no longer recognise."
It is hard to write a lengthy review on a book where the plot is secondary to the prose so all I will say is that this is a read that demands attention, time and appreciation. It will force you to slow down and allow you to consider, reflect and enjoy Wallace's insight, observations and description.
If you enjoy books like "Stoner" then this is the book for you. Similarly if you enjoy eloquent literary fiction then this is also the book for you!
I recommend this book. It was well written and with some memorable characters.
"The Girl in the Garden" by Melanie Wallace is published on 31st January 2017.
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