Sunday 22 October 2023

The Other Garden

 Recently on Andecdotal Evidence (yes, again – and why not? Patrick Kurp's blog is a literary treasure trove) I read about Francis Wyndham, an author who was really only a name to me. When, very soon after, I spotted his sole novel, The Other Garden, I naturally had to buy it. In length it's really a novella (barely 100 pages), but it won the Whitbread First Novel Award when it was published in 1987 – when the first-time novelist was in his early 60s. The paperback edition I have was published as one of the Arena Novella series, and the jacket is emblazoned with superlatives from his fellow authors – always suspicious when the book was written by a publisher. According to Harold Pinter, The Other Garden is 'wry, exact, poised', while Isabel Quigley finds it 'rich, observant and shrewd' (Alan Sillitoe's Out of the Whirlpool, also in the Arena Novella series, is described by the Observer as 'taut, laconic, superbly sandpapered' – not one I'd ever heard before). Hilary Bailey declares that The Other Garden 'comes as close to perfection as you'll get in an imperfect world', while Susan Hill has no reservations: it is 'a completely faultless piece of writing'. 
  Well, it grieves me to report that they are right: this novella of Wyndham's really is damn near perfect. Beginning in the late Thirties and ending after VE Day, it is told in the first person through the eyes of an initially adolescent boy, and takes place mostly in the countryside to which the war has exiled his family and many others. Among the others are the Demarest family, whose grown-up daughter Kay is the focus of the narrator's fascinated attention, and of the story that unfolds. Kay seems mysteriously in thrall to her dreadful parents, unable to break from them, and in love with her elusive brother, a glamorous figure making his way as an actor. Kay and her parents, and their strange, troubled relationship, are brilliantly portrayed, and Kay, in particular, is an unforgettably compelling character. It is the narrator's fascination with her that carries the narrative along to such haunting effect. The sense of place is strong, and the lesser characters are full of life, but they rightly remain in the background. The enigma of Kay is never really solved, and she remains essentially mysterious (as people tend to do), but Wyndham makes us care about her almost as much as the narrator, and feel the same baffled fascination and love. The Other Garden has some comic moments, but the prevailing tone is poignant, and the effect, in the end, is genuinely moving. This is a memorable, utterly convincing and, yes, damn near perfect piece of fiction. Read it – you won't be sorry (well, you might, I suppose – nothing's certain – but at least it's a short read). 

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