Thursday, November 29, 2012

Walled Secrets: A Book Review on The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

When a young child is left alone in Australia with no memory of who she is, she is taken in by a new family to be raised as their own. When her father decides on her 21st birthday to finally tell her the truth, Nell's life is then left forever altered. Determined to discover her true origins, Nell eventually travels to England armed with a rare book of illustrated fairy tales to guide her search for her family. But things have a habit of swiftly changing and Nell is unable to continue her search for the truth. As a result, Nell's granddaughter Cassandra is left with the clues that Nell had put together and out of love and respect for her grandmother, she takes up the search where Nell left off. What she finds is a decades long mystery that revolves around family ties, fairy stories and the fate of a little girl left left alone on a dock nearly a century ago.

When I first read Kate Morton's book The House at Riverton earlier this summer, I was floored by the incredible world I'd encountered in the novel. I'm not one for choosing fiction works with a more historical slant to them so my affection for the book came as a bit of a surprise. True to my word, I said I'd read The Forgotten Garden next as it's next in line according to publication dates. Again, Morton creates a rich history, encompassing not only a wide array of characters but a stretch of time that spans nearly a century. But the awful truth is that The Forgotten Garden left me feeling grumpy and melancholy in the end.

It's a good story. The mystery is enough to leave the reader willing to stick to finishing the novel, hoping for a good outcome, but in the end there was too much sadness for me to truly feel that this was a brilliant read. Instead, by the time I finished this book I wanted to wring the necks of a lot of the characters and I even found myself snapping at real people when I was disturbed from my reading. My apologies to those I snapped at, by the way.

The writing is still very respectful. There is an attention to detail, a way of words that Morton has that leaves a lasting image in the reader's mind. She has a beautiful turn of phrase that is perfect for this story that weaves the use of fairytales into the lives of this novel's inhabitants. The novel is definitely ambitious this time around though. There are multiple timelines and various narrators provided for each shift in this novel. As a reader, it may turn out a bit frustrating when you're reading about one character only to find that the next two or three chapters and another 40-50 pages will pass between other points of view and time before you get back to the timeline you're more invested in. I confess, every time the year changed and the narrator shifted, I checked how many pages I had to go before I got back to the story I was more interested in. Eventually you get the hang of it, reading the date and setting and then thinking, oh, back to this story now, okay, how many pages is it? and so on.

Why you ask? Because a LOT of these characters are just so despicable that while as a reader you know you are being forced to read this point of view to better understand the mystery, you still want to move on quickly from them. I found myself so very frustrated by the fact that there were more than your fair share amount of characters who were deplorable in morals, that I just counted the pages until I could get back to someone I could support. Well done, Miss Morton. Your villains in this novel were enough to make my skin crawl, they were just so horribly based in reality. That's the truth of the matter here, the fact that the actions of these characters could be seen as fact, and some of these characters did such terrible things to others, that in the end sometimes a reader just needs to take a break from it and think of happier things. And in that there lies the merit of good writer. If you can find that a character has moved you to such feeling, be it good or bad, just by reading about them, you have to respect the talent of the said writer that managed to invoke such a reaction out of you.

On the plus side for this book, I did find it interesting that Morton chose to include some of the fairytales that so much of this book's mystery revolves around. It provided an interesting insight to the workings of the character that wrote them. I won't give anything more on that as the pleasure of reading these tales reveals a lot of information about the various facets of the main mystery.

In terms of characters, Nell and Cassandra are two halves of the same whole. A grandmother and granddaughter linked through their pain, and their pain is what makes the solving of the mystery such a necessary outcome. They are resilient, intelligent and they are the characters I followed more closely in the book. I couldn't wait to get back to their stories. If I mention any other characters though, I'm afraid I'll start ranting so now I'm moving on.

In terms of themes and outcomes, this novel is more of the straight-up mystery. In Morton's previous novel, there were questions about a certain incident but the characters close to the central mystery were not the ones searching for answers. That story focused on having one woman admit to the truth that she'd kept a secret for so long. In this novel however, there is an active search going on in which Nell and Cassandra are working through certain findings, traveling great distances in order to find the clues that will lead to the truth about where Nell came from. It's definitely a plus in terms of getting across the themes of family and identity so necessary to these two women. In order to understand their past, their family and future, they need to understand the bits that form their own identities. By discovering the truth, they would then be able to look towards the future with an easier mind and a willing heart.

There is a lot going on in this book. There have been many comparisons made to The Secret Garden, and while I could go into detail by giving you a list of where certain inspirations could draw parallels between the two different stories, it's more fun for the reader to go through the journey on their own. Next up on the list, The Distant Hours.

Rating: 6.5 Stars

I will read the next book by Kate Morton. That's why the rating is closer to 7 Stars. But really, I only just LIKED this book, mainly because I'm a big fan of things being fair, and there just wasn't enough for me to feel that this novel was anything more than a truly tragic tale that only just managed to have some kind of better outcome in the end. There were a lot of things that I just didn't think were FAIR, and while that may seem childish, I'm sure there are a LOT of readers out there that may just feel the same way about the circumstances in this book.

It's not that I want a "hollywood ending" or something trite like that. I just would have wanted more in terms of ALL of the horrible things coming to light instead of there still being so many secrets left undiscovered. In terms of recommendation, I would steer readers more towards The House at Riverton, as it left a more satisfying feeling in the aftermath of the novel as opposed to The Forgotten Garden.

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