Beautiful and evocative (4 stars)
Source- review copy
Published August 2014 by Orion.
I read the Kindle edition. The hardback is 384 pages.
After I absolutely loved Deborah Lawrenson’s The Lantern a few years back, I was eager to read her newest offering. Like its predecessor, The Sea Garden sounded like a beautifully atmospheric read, set in a gorgeous setting- this time an island off the French coast. From the start this evocative read drew me directly in to its vibrant surroundings and I really appreciated how its various themes were eventually woven together- the journey in getting there was certainly worth the ride.
The Sea Garden is in essence three novellas which are all interconnected. One is a contemporary setting on the aforementioned French island. The other is set toward the end of WWII in Nazi-occupied Provence and the last setting is again in wartime Provence and Britain. The author cleverly weaves the three threads of these stories together, offering beautifully told stories of mystery, murder and love and loss.
The book opens with something of a bang which really had me intrigued, though this becomes somewhat deceptive as the rest of the story veers off in a completely different context. Garden designer Ellie is on her way to Porquerolles to restore a memorial garden, but then events immediately turn sinister. Something of a ghost story, this narrative has a particularly haunting quality to it, but I loved the descriptions of the island- even if I did feel I was left hanging somewhat by the narrative immediately shifting into the next novella which was some decades in the past.
I have always been fascinated by the resistance movement, so the aspects set in Provence really interested me, as well as the lush descriptions of its lavender fields and perfume-making. We are introduced to some fabulous characters, including some very brave women who are forced to make some really tough choices in some impossibly difficult situations. Again, the setting was mesmerising, though I was more focused on the characters here and what they went through- the protagonists in this section were brilliantly portrayed. I considered this portion of the book to be the most engaging one.
I was left scratching my head a bit as the novella again switched focus, this time becoming something of a spy/espionage type thriller laced with paranoia and suspicion. For me personally, this was perhaps the least interesting part of the story though it was the most fast-paced; I don’t usually get along with spy novels. I was also left really wondering how all three novellas were connected as they were so different and there was so little of the story left to go! (I get confused easily… at least there was no time travel involved!)
Thankfully the author doesn’t keep the reader waiting too long and cleverly, it soon becomes apparent as to just how the threads of the story are linked. Characters lives intertwine and the focus alights back on the contemporary plotline.
I think aside from the beautiful prose, the strongest aspect of this book was the author’s availability to describe her settings so remarkably. There is just the right level of detail imparted without it reading too much like a travelogue and as a consequence I felt as if I was right there with her protagonists. That being said though, with it being told via the medium of three novellas, once I had connected with the characters, I was wrenched away from them quickly and then immediately plunged into a new situation. It was worth this momentary sense of confusion (and loss) though, to progress the pace of the story and merely demonstrates the author’s ability in crafting some believable characters that I didn’t want to say goodbye to!
With its vivid settings, memorable protagonists and fascinating historical storyline, The Sea Garden is a novel I would recommend to fans of Kate Morton and Katherine Webb. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what this author comes up with next.