Question: when you find a new author. Do you start with their debut novel? Or their most recent publication?
This is a question I asked myself recently when looking at a selection of titles by Honno, the Welsh Women’s Press. I was trying to decided whether to read Juliet Greenwood’s Eden’s Garden. Or her more recent book, We that are left? As I had only recently reviewed a time-slip type novel and was in that groove, I decided on Eden’s Garden, adding Greenwood’s more recent publication to my Easter reading pile.
I’m glad I did. Embroiled in decisions about my mum’s aged-care needs, it’s themes resonated.
Set in present day and late nineteenth century England and Wales, Eden’s Garden tells the story of Carys, a young Welsh woman who turned down marriage to her childhood sweetheart in search of a bigger, more adventurous life in the world beyond Wales. Now in her thirties, Carys has been on adventurous international holidays, established a successful career and dreams of buying a small-holding in the south of England with her long-term partner Joe. She has no desire to return to the Snowdonia Village of her childhood. Or to care for her ageing mother. She certainly doesn’t want to become embroiled in the struggle to save Plas Eden, the ancestral home of her childhood sweetheart, David Meredith. But unbeknownst to Carys, Plas Eden’s gardens hold secrets – past secrets that are drawing Carys towards a new understanding of her Welsh home.
Eden’s garden is a tactile book, filled with lovingly realistic depictions of present day Welsh life
“With the arrival of the waitress, whose first language appeared to be Polish rather than Welsh or English, tea and coffee were ordered ….. At last the tea arrived: tea in a little metal teapot, with a matching pot of hot water and a minuscule jug of milk. The coffee, rather surprisingly, came in the sophistication of its own miniature cafetiere; the effect was rather spoilt by the garish mugs with an assortment of kittens on their sides.”
I have been in that cafe. I’m sure I have. Or at least in one of the dozens like it. These and other descriptions brought the setting vividly to life.
But what about the story? How did that work for me?
Eden’s garden is a story about the present. Carys is the novel’s primary protagonist. Her third person viewpoint is paramount. Surprisingly, for me, who has a distinct preference for the historical, Carys’ story was quite compelling. Her reflections on caring for an ageing parent and the way life goals change and develop rang true to this reader. The parallel nineteenth century tale, fed to us in just the right doses, was also poignant. It powerfully portrayed the vulnerable position of women in a male dominated Victorian society. Plas Eden’s statues were an apt and evocative image around which to revolve the two story lines. As the story progressed I found myself reading faster and faster. I was not disappointed with ending when it came.
If had to make any criticism of this book (I suppose if you are going to write a review you must make an effort) it would be about the beginning. The set-up was quite busy – in terms of viewpoint and characters. I couldn’t work out what Poppy’s character added to the narrative, apart from providing an alternative life choice to Carys’. The later was not necessary. Carys’s position was well enough drawn without her. But with her childhood history, I kept expecting Poppy to come back into the story. She never did. Unless I have missed a hidden link completely? The nineteenth century story set up was spare and evocative. But I would have liked Mr Meredith’s feelings to have been more clearly signposted before we reached the turning point the author gave us (I am being deliberately vague here, so as not to give spoilers).
There, that’s my criticism’s over with. I am brushing the dirt from my fingers.
For those who like a book with two time connected time periods, a well drawn family mystery, vivid and evocative descriptions and anything to do with Wales, this is a wonderful, escape-from-the-world read, that also, unexpectedly, gives much food for thought. I look forward to indulging in Greenwood’s next book over Easter.