Imag­ine a Vic­to­rian fairy tale set in 1968

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Dave Wil­liamson

ORosie Chard’s sec­ond novel, has all the sim­plic­ity and lin­ger­ing men­ace of a Vic­to­rian fairy tale. It evolves qui­etly into a cross be­tween cosy mys­tery and ro­mance that car­ries its shel­tered pro­tag­o­nist to the thresh­old of the big­ger world. Chard lived in Winnipeg for half of the last decade and won Al­berta’s Trade Fic­tion Book Award in 2010 for her first novel, Seal In­tes­tine Rain­coat. She has re­turned to Eng­land, the coun­try of NCE upon a time, there was a young woman named Emily Stoker who lived with her strict fa­ther Wilf in an English town called Billings­ford. Emily grad­u­ated from pub­lic school but stayed home to keep house for her fa­ther and help him build a mas­sive wall be­tween their house and next door. The wall was meant to keep out the evil neigh­bour Ed­ward Black. The In­sis­tent Gar­den, her birth, and she now lives in Brighton. The In­sis­tent Gar­den is told in straight­for­ward prose, but there are many things about Emily that are dif­fi­cult to ac­cept, and the plot re­lies too much on 11th-hour rev­e­la­tion and con­fes­sion. The time of the novel is 1968-69. Billings­ford seems as iso­lated as the fan­tasy set­ting of Amer­i­can Richard Brauti­gan’s 1968 cult favourite In Wa­ter­melon Su­gar, though the towns­peo­ple are aware of Amer­i­can as­tro­nauts head­ing for the moon. Mean as Wilf is, he doesn’t pre­vent Emily from leav­ing the house. While he’s at work, she ven­tures into town and even gets a part-time job. She has one friend, Una, who seems more so­phis­ti­cated than Emily; that only raises the ques­tion of how Emily, now 18, could go right through school and be un­fazed by her peers. Her mother, Miriam, died when Emily was a child, yet only now is she won­der­ing what Miriam was like and what caused her death. Vis­it­ing overnight once a week is Emily’s wicked Aunt Vi­vian. This nasty woman even­tu­ally moves in per­ma­nently, tor­ment­ing Emily even more than Wilf — Vi­vian’s brother — does. When Wilf’s at home, he spends his time ei­ther build­ing the wall higher or putting up more wall­pa­per in­side the house. Mean­while, Emily wants to raise flow­ers. She be­comes as keen about her plants as Larry does about his gar­den maze in Carol Shields’s Larry’s Party. She’s en­cour­aged by Archie, the old fel­low who lives on the other side of the Stok­ers’. As her gar­den flour­ishes, she tells him, “It’s the sur­prises that I love the most; the un­ex­pected shape of things and the way the colours change with the height of the sun. ... I had no idea it would be like this. The grow­ing, the flow­er­ing, it never stops.” No won­der Una tells her: “Edith, you need to meet a bloke.” The gar­den may be en­rap­tur­ing, but there is some­thing sin­is­ter about it, and that too is re­vealed in the clos­ing pages. De­spite his brood­ing and his ob­ses­sive be­hav­iour, Wilf never re­ally comes to life, but there are some ap­peal­ing lesser char­ac­ters: Jean Wordsworth, the shop­keeper where Edith works, pro­vides lively asides through­out the novel in the form of let­ters to her friend Gill. “She’s ac­tu­ally quite pretty when she’s not look­ing so wor­ried,” Jean says about Edith. And then there is Johnny Worth, the im­petu­ous young post­man, who ob­vi­ously fan­cies Edith. As much as you want to give the fe­male pro­tag­o­nist a good shake, you fin­ish The In­sis­tent Gar­den sus­pect­ing her life is des­tined to get bet­ter. Dave Wil­liamson is a Winnipeg writer whose lat­est

novel is Dat­ing.

The In­sis­tent Gar­den

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