30 September 2016

The Child Garden

The Child Garden
Catriona McPherson
Constable, 29 September 2016
PB, 292pp
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.

Eden was its name. "An alternative school for happy children," said the  brochure. "A load of hippies running wild in the woods," said the  locals.  After a suicide it closed its doors and the children scattered. Thirty  years later, it's a care home; its grounds neglected and overgrown, its only neighbour Gloria Harkness, who acts as tenant-caretaker in a  rundown farmhouse to be close to her son. Nicky lives in the home, lighting up Gloria's life and breaking her heart every day. Nicky and a ragbag of animals aren't enough to keep loneliness at bay, and when Gloria's childhood friend and secret sweetheart, Stephen "Stig" Tarrant, turns up at her door one night, all she can see is the boy she knew. She lets him in. Stig's being stalked by an Eden girl, he says. She has goaded him into meeting her at the site of the suicide. Except that suddenly, after all these years, the dead are beginning to speak and suicide is not what they say.  

This book is just what I want from a crime novel - which, perhaps strangely, is to not be plunged right away into the crime. I want atmosphere and lots of it. Yes, there's a prologue here which describes just what happened 30 years before (or maybe it doesn't...) but then when we quickly come back to the present day, McPherson skilfully establishes a great sense of place. That's what I look for - ever since reading Sherlock Holmes years ago, I want to be shown the setting, I want it to be real. And that's what The Child Garden does. We're introduced to Gloria, to her lonely (or self sufficient) life in a remote cottage, ten miles of single track road from the nearest town. To her old and beloved dog Walter Scott. To her house cats and her byre cats. To her tumbledown house - shabby, draughty, damp, remote, but safe.

Or maybe not so safe. It isn't long before the action starts, before there's a pounding on Gloria's door one rainswept night and her life changes forever. An old friend is in trouble, and she agrees to help, putting herself outside the law and stepping into matters that definitely don't concern her.

I loved Gloria as a character. She has stubbornness woven into her nature, whether in caring for her disabled child when abandoned by his father or in helping out that old friend, despite it bringing trouble down on her head. She has wounds - a vile parent and sister, that divorce - but she's bright, realistic about life and loves her dog and cats. Best of all she's a reader, the shelves of the old cottage stacked with books and story strewn with bookish references (indeed even the very title, which plays on Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses, some of which are quoted here).

Gloria is a great character to spend time with. McPherson has perhaps given a little help here - she's got a job (local registrar) that is useful for finding out about people, there is the odd useful fall of snow (showing up footprints) and she has quite a bit of luck, but none of this is implausible. And she has a difficult quest - to work out what happened in the grounds of Eden all those years ago. The account in the prologue is tantalising but incomplete. Every one of the children who was there - every one who survived - has a version of their own, but what's the truth? And how does it explain what's happening now? I enjoyed Gloria's unravelling of this - necessarily constrained by practicalities like caring for Nicky, doing her job, and avoiding letting on to the police what she's up to.

But beneath that mystery there's another which is older, darker and stranger. It concerns the Devil's Bridge in the grounds of Eden. The "hallowed place". The "rocking stone" behind Gloria's cottage. Does the pattern of that she's tracing have echoes in the geometry of an earlier tragedy? If it does, how can she hope to put things right? There are dark shadows here that are just right for a chilly Autumn evening.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable mystery with a great setting, believable characters - the vignettes of the ex Eden children are excellent sketches of their varying, mostly sad, lives - and, especially in the final few chapters, a rising tension that makes the pages fly by faster and faster.

Highly recommended.

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