Kate Morton's multi-general genealogical saga is as complex as the over-grown and secluded garden which forms the story's title. Laden with memory and with the dark secrets of the grand aristocratic Cornwall estate, Blackhurst Manor, this novel takes the reader on a colorful journey into an Edwardian England of envy, abandonment and betrayal. In 2005 in Brisbane Cassandra maintains a silent vigil over her grandmother Nell Andrews. Towards the end of her life she peaks about a woman, a lady whom she calls the Authoress. She seemed to think they were on some kind of boat. When Nell finally passes, Cassandra discovers she's gifted her the deeds to an isolated Cornish cottage complete with a hidden walled garden, the back completely covered with brambles.
Traveling to London and then into the village of Tregenna which lies on the outskirts of Blackhurst Manor, Cassandra is overwhelmed by the circumstances of her visit, and that of the dark mystery surrounding Nell's past and why, in 1913, she was left abandoned on a sailing ship bound for Australia with a funny looking case with white leather and with silver buckles. Only a book of children's fairy tales published in London in 1913 remains inside. Secrets have a way of making themselves known, and both the garden and Cliff Cottage have a formidable reputation according to the inhabitants of the local village Tregenna.
Soon enough Nell's family, her blood and her past, and these secrets steadily materialize in the wake of Cassandra's investigations, all knitting together: Nell's unknown parentage, her arrival as a child at an ocean port, the suitcase, her mysterious trip to England the early 70's and of course the secret house. Morton steadily weaves the complicated narratives of Cassandra and Nell into that of the life of the Authoress, Eliza Makepeace, her delicate fairy tales anchoring the long forgotten memories and the threads that tie the Authoress of Nell's memory, the name of the Mountrachet family, particularly Rose Mountrachet and her marriage to the handsome artist Nathaniel Walker.
This novel constantly tosses up flecks of the past, offering a maze of unanswered questions. Yet the issue remains of what happened to Eliza who was last seen in London in late 1913, with a small girl Ivory Walter, perhaps Rose's daughter. Revenge and animosity play out in this Dickensian drama. The gorgeous Cornish countryside is eventually shattered by a shocking act of betrayal, Eliza finding herself envious of the glamorous American man who causes her cousin's affections to shift so readily and who steals her dearest friend in the blink of an eyelid. And then there's the fiercely manipulative Adeline lady Mountrachet, who runs a tight ship at Blackhurst and fears Eliza the interloper, the cuckoo who was sent back to Blackhurst by her husband Linus to supplant Rose and to push her from the nest that Adeline had fought to make her own.
With characters who are both compassionate and also cruel, the pitiless manipulations of those at Blackhurst Manor give much of this novel its dramatic heft. Packed with genealogical indexes and hidden scrapbooks, and fairy tale stories, the fear, uncertainty and the excitement of Eliza and Nell - and Cassandra's life gradually unfolds. Meanwhile, the weeds of brambles of the forgotten garden shape the narrative, the hole, very small, at the bottom of the wall, concealing a dark secret. As the jagged memories appear to Cassandra, it is finally revealed that it is Nell who'd spent enough of her life waylaid by regret, drowning in untruths and uncertainty in this painful allegory of love, family secrets, and mistaken identity. Mike Leonard May 09.