Garden is a haunting book.
It deals with some heavy topics, specifically child abuse – and I’ll be talking about that part of the book. Just a heads up. (Side note: I appreciate that the publisher put a specific warning about this in the front matter. We should see this more often.)
Between the experimental layout of the pages and the closeness of the narration to the mind of the main character, Ellis, Garden never really lets you land on your feet. This is especially true in her moments of anxiety and distrust, which is in stark contrast to the characters around her. Very early on Ellis gets a sense that something’s not quite right, setting her apart from the rest of her classmates.
This sense of isolation is integral to the novel, and increases drastically after [SPOILERS AHEAD] Ellis is sexually assaulted by the Headmaster, the mysterious, all-powerful head of the school.
It would have been easy to gloss over the details of the abuse, but the novel delves deep into Ellis’s reaction to it. Here the prose excels, and I can’t do it justice. It’s a very difficult read, but a visceral dive into the effect abuse has on a person, especially the sense of detachment and separation that comes with it. The prose feels untethered in the very best way. All the way through, the description of the setting is haunting and ungrounded, which adds to the sense of discomfort, but here that really comes to the fore.
The suffering that comes with being in an abusive situation is beautifully explored both explicitly on the page, in the way Ellis feels isolated, numb, and unable to connect to her friends after, and in metaphorical ways which will reveal themselves to those brave enough to read it multiple times. There are many threads to pull on in Garden, revealing beauty (in the writing and its intelligence) and horror (in the content) at once. It’s clear that the story had been developing in the author’s mind for some time. The author makes great use of motifs that carry multiple meanings, and uses context to assign qualities to them. I think this means no two people will read it the same.
As an avid fan of fantasy, I adored seeing a secondary world setting to explore this subject. We don’t often see abuse explored through the lens of fantasy, but the world of Somewhere is weaved together gorgeously; it feels surreal, disturbing, and fragile, but like there’s a deepness to it that is left unspoken. In this way it reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline; the people feel very vulnerable, the world feels threatening, and there are dangerously powerful creatures that lurk in the dark that only the children are aware of.
There is a horror in twist surprises – but I think there’s a deeper one in having your worst fears slowly realised, watching something rumbling towards you and being unable to stop it. From the start Ellis is on edge, fearing the worst. The staccato rhythm of the writing is uncomfortable. The methodical realisation of her fears is chilling, as is the repetition of the line: “nothing is going to happen.” This makes for a thrilling read, but one that leaves cuts in the reader as it reaches its climax.
Crucially, though, Ellis survives. This, for me, was the core reading of this book. Victims are not lost. You haven’t failed if you’ve suffered abuse. Abuse leaves scars, yes, but someone who suffers it is not lost forever, irreparably broken and worth giving up on. They need time, unashamed love, and endless patience. Armed with that, they will find a way forward.
You can find purchase links for The Garden of the Golden Children on the publisher’s website.