Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Savage Garden: Review

The Savage Garden, the second novel by British author Mark Mills, is a literary mystery in the tradition of juxtaposing historical and contemporary events. Set in the post-World War II era, it focuses on Cambridge student Adam Strickland who is in search of a subject for his art history thesis. His mentor suggests that he research an Italian garden found on the estate of Signora Francesca Docci. The garden was built by the villa's first owner, Federico Docci, and has been recognized as a tribute to his wife Flora, who died when she was only 25. From the moment Strickland first walks through the garden he begins to suspect that there is more to the tranquil setting that meets the eye and that the statues placed in various sections may be more than a tribute to the mythological guardians as has been assumed for hundreds of years. As he endeavors to unravel the puzzle of the garden, his conversations with Signora Docci, her family, and her long-time companion make him aware of a more recent mystery. Emilio, the Signora's eldest son, was killed during the German occupation--apparently by drunken German soldiers. But there have already been two versions told of the murder. Is there a third, more accurate version yet to be told?

I had a very rocky start with this novel. The first chapter has, what seems to me, a completely pointless scene with Strickland and his then girlfriend. She is a writer and they are discussing a portion of her book when all of sudden Mills throws in a description of how her breasts were straining against the fabric of her shirt. And I'm thinking "Have I stumbled into a bodice-ripper when I wasn't looking? Will there be 'throbbing' next?" Totally unnecessary description and it almost caused me to stop reading. Because if every time a female character was brought onstage we were going to be given unnecessary sexual descriptions, then I was not interested. It didn't help that the girlfriend was pretty much not essential at all and that it didn't matter that she was a writer. She dumps him...and that makes him all the more eager to go to Italy for his research, but that could have been established in a much better way. Fortunately Mills gets the torrid romance novel prose out of his system early on (he handles future romance scenes much more deftly) and soon gets down to business with the literary mystery. I was completely enthralled with the secrets of the garden and the quest to discover its hidden meaning. Given my reading over the past year, I should have picked up on the literary clues that were essential to the solution, but even though I missed those references I did see the basic secret long before Strickland.

Mills does a very good job balancing the historical and contemporary mysteries, although I must admit that I was more interested in the secrets of the garden than I was in the murder of Signora Docci's son. Overall, Mills also does very well with his characterization--giving the individuals depth and making the reader interested in their motives. The only reservations I have are with the character of the contemporary villain--we aren't given enough to provoke either sympathy or revulsion--and I would have liked to have seen a bit more of Strickland's mentor, Professor Crispin Leonard.

This was a very satisfying and interesting literary mystery. I learned quite a bit about Italian art and history. There was plenty of action and adventure and (after that first chapter) even a bit of romance. A fast-paced, good summer-time read. Three and a half stars.

1 comment:

J F Norris said...

I read this last year. It kept showing up at every book sale and every Half Price Books store and when I finally found one for a buck I thought, "OK, let's go for it." I liked it. The Italian background enhanced my interest just as it did for you. I even found Mills' first book and bought that one too, but I have yet to tackle it. His last one (THE INFORMATION OFFICER) was a big success with the critics and he has one more coming out in the fall. Sudden explosion of creativity after being dormant for a while.

BTW - saw those comments at Yvette's blog about me being the "king" of vintage mystery reading. Thanks, but there are others far more well read in that department than me. I do read an abudnance of oddball books than most people that is definitely true.