I was SO excited to win a copy of AM Howell’s The Garden Of Lost Secrets. I first came across the premise of this book thanks to following Samuel J Halpin, author of The Peculiar Peggs of Riddling Woods, on Twitter and seeing his encouragement for fellow Usborne Debut authors.
I fell in love with the novel simply on a description of the object that inspired the novel: the discovery of an abandoned gardening journal of a grand old estate Ickworth House in Suffolk, history captured in its pages. As a lover of history, gardens and stories of historical houses I had bookish tingles that The Garden Of Lost Secrets was going to be a good one and I am so pleased to say that I was right.
Clara is sent to relatives who are the Housekeeper and the Head Gardener respectively at a Great estate during the autumn of the Somme only to discover it’s not the joyous greeting she expected and a wistful air of secrets and unspoken truths surrounds the estate.
As Clara makes a secret friend in Will and they bond to discover the truth of who is leaving mandarins around the estate and who is stealing the prize Hot house grown pineapples (which are like gold at this time) it distracts from the growing frenzy of fearful expectation with soldiers about to shipped to the Front and the letter in her pocket about her missing brother.
Howell has captured the historical era perfectly with the malevolent presence of the war overshadowing daily rhythms and experiences but the creeping gloom of the war also captures a ‘separateness’ of the ‘watcher’ we often saw in children’s literature at the time.
There is the oppressive silence of secrets and regrets coupled with snatched moments of remembered joy which add to the atmosphere of immersion. The historical attitudes towards children of ‘better off not knowing’ fuels the frustrations and eventually curiosity of Clara to unpick and discover secrets one by one but are naturally confused from a child’s jumbled point of view without context nor history.
In this way it feels like the warm embrace of a classic children’s book, but A.M Howell has been extremely clever by framing from the perspective of a relatively ordinary ‘Downstairs’ non-aristocratic child meaning we are without the problematic elitism that often punctures the halcyon view of the books of that time. I’m wobbly to say 100% working class poor as her family has certain privileges and options that some of my own ancestors at the time did not enjoy but these work better for a post modern child reader!
Clara’s confusion and pain at being seemingly abandoned and unwanted is understandable for a child of her age and palpable but the growth she undergoes across the novel in compassion and understanding is a wonderful coming of age moment as she realises that not everything is about her, not even the coldness of others to her.
The tiny moments of tenderness and heartbreak that punctuate the text and bring a humanity to the coldness of her aunt and the sadness in her uncle and are a powerful lesson in compassion to readers that we shouldn’t make assumptions, behaviour both cold and exuberant can often mask complex situations and that old saying about assumptions is explored in a gentle but effective way through consequences.
There are some beautiful passages and plot points involving the garden too which acts like another character in a way not just a setting, with a constant flurry of movement and business and the hothouse being a ‘hothouse’ of activity, whether watching, nefarious or mysterious surrounding the theft of prize pineapples.
Of course the fuss over pineapples seems so ridiculous to the modern mindset which says go to the supermarket but the pineapple has been a sign of wealth and achievement (usually by working class effort) for hundreds of years which opens up conversations about continuity and change both at home with elder generations and in an education setting in historical activities.
If you like classics such as The Secret Garden, and enjoyed the ‘downstairs’ portions of the Downton Abbey television series you will fall for The Garden Of Lost Secrets.
Overall this book is bittersweet nostalgic & comfortingly familiar in its setting & style evoking early 20th century children’s literature but still fresh & modern in outlook- heartrending, hopeful & utterly beautiful. This is a book that deserves to be studied to be treasured, to be remembered and savoured. A MUST read for me.
The Garden Of Lost Secrets by AM Howell is published by Usborne. I was lucky enough to win a copy this has not affected my opinion.
Images thanks to unsplash.com, I wish I was this good at photography!!