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30 August 2021

#BlogTour #Review - The Winter Garden by Alexandra Bell

The Winter Garden
Alexandra Bell
Del Rey, 2 September 2021
Available as: HB, 528pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529100822

I'm always ready to fall for a book which evokes that crisp, glittering aesthetic of sparkle, sugar and steaming breath on a frozen day - something that connects in my mind with The Night Circus or The Toymakers - so when earlier this year I noticed The Winter Garden coming up I knew I needed to read it - so I'm very grateful to Del Rey for an advance copy of The Winter Garden to consider for review, and for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.

This story takes us back to the early 19th century when, in the Prologue,  Beatrice Sitwell is living through the very worst day of her life. 

Forced to cope with terrible loss, and not understanding what's happening, Beatrice falls short - in the eyes of her father, and herself - in a way that will haunt her life. She flees into the woods and gardens around her house and is comforted by James Sheppard, the gardener's son (by far the nicest person in this book, I have to say) and also by the appearance of the legendary Winter Garden, which comes to those who need it most. For eight days Beatrice visits the garden by night, when the clocks chime thirteen. Then, it leaves her.

A couple of decades later we meet Beatrice again, now grown up, and her friend Rosa Warren, an heiress from the Unites States, out to marry a member of the aristocracy. The relationship between the two women - I would say "friendship" but it's much more complicated than that - will form the emotional heart of this book as both, believing themselves (with good cause) to have suffered, vie for the favour of the Garden and eventually, come into conflict over the offer of a wish underwritten by the last of its magic.

Bell introduces the Garden and explains what it is right at the start of the book, rather than leading us up to the concept and having characters puzzle over its existence, and that gives a clue to the nature of the world she describes because while it's not exactly one where magic is loose, neither is it the 19th century as we understand it. The fact of the garden is a particular wonder but it's not exactly unique. It's soon clear for example that the orchid hunting in which the adult James takes part - alongside many less scrupulous adventurers - isn't just for rare and beautiful blooms, but for plants with all sorts of wondrous powers. The butterfly orchid, for example, can carry messages to the dead. And Rosa's family, the Warrens, are manufacturers of amazing clockwork creations which rival or surpass the living creatures they're based on, certainly treading the borders of magic if not actually crossing them. 

Alongside this, though, the social conditions of the actual Victorian period persist, something the book makes especially clear in its focus on the position of women. This is subordinate - we see Rosa's husband treat her very harshly, threatening at one point to have her committed to an asylum, and Beatrice isn't allowed to submit her botanical discoveries to the Linnaen Society. We also see class as an issue. Beatrice, generally likeable, has a failing here, rebuking the adult, prosperous James who as the son of a gardener ought to show deference to her, someone born with a title. We don't though see the much of the effects of poverty, and although it's noted that Rosa's family own a plantation in Georgia and there are a couple of mentions of slavery, that really isn't something that the book addresses. The focus is, as I've said, on the place of women and outside that, this isn't hard history, it's fantasy and Bell is I think using the fantastical idea of the Winter Garden to explore the ways in which women who have suffered, and who have lost, may go about regaining self-respect, love, a place in the world and autonomy.

The Winter Garden really grapples with this, alongside the mistakes and regrets to which any life is prones (there is a whole new type of plum that Beatrice creates that tastes of regret). A closely related theme is might-have-beens. A lot of the magic that the women creates addresses these: saving people from mistakes they might make in future, seeking to know alternate lives they might have lived, reversing bad decisions. In Beatrice's case there is that awful day I mentioned earlier, for Rosa, a choice she made later in life. That's where the conflict arises - with only one wish available, which of the two will get a chance to put right what went wrong?

It's made clear that the quest to reshape the past may have unexpected consequences, and that there are choices and sacrifices to be made. And, as well, that even the desire to make amends can lead to hateful behaviour. These are characters with whose plight one may sympathies, but who are still making mistakes and yet to learn the lesson that while the past (perhaps) can't be altered the future, and future choices, still can. But that means some really awful things happen!

In all, don't let the crystal notes of  the Garden, and the scent of sugared fancies and hot chocolate lead you astray with this one. Beneath the sparkling surface, The Winter Garden is a book that deals with the hard edges of life: with friendship, companionship, regrets, learning to be better. Rosa, James and, especially, Beatrice, are lumpy, believable characters who have fascinating stories to tell, even though they are far from being perfect people, and you should definitely buy this book and let them speak to you.

For more information about The Winter Garden, see the publisher's website here

You can buy The Winter Garden from your local bookshop, or order online from Bookshop dot com UK, from Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

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