Quiet novel offers subtle pleasures

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September 3, 2013

The Insistent Garden
by Rosie Chard

Published by NeWest Press

320 pages; $19.95

Reviewed by Margaret Thompson

Once upon a time, in a sleepy town in the Midlands, there lived a sad girl called Edith.  Rosie Chard’s debut novel, Seal Intestine Raincoat (NeWest, 2009), which won the 2010 Trade Fiction Book Award, is a tense portrayal of social breakdown. By contrast, any description of  Chard’s second novel, The Insistent Garden, is likely to sound like a fairy tale. This is no accident, for the elements are all there: the bereaved household; the father distracted by obsession; the wicked female, in this case an aunt; the neglected daughter; sundry outsiders whose role is to enable the heroine to break free of the spell that binds her.

The dysfunctional family mired in secrets has an ancient history in fiction. Edith’s family is very odd indeed. She lives with her father in a semi-detached house, and Cinderella-like, spends most of her time as an unpaid housekeeper, often ignored, but relentlessly harassed by her dreadful Aunt Vivian, who descends like a blight every Tuesday. Edith’s father pours his energies into building a wall in his garden as a bulwark against a hated and permanently invisible neighbour. To reinforce that defence, he also plasters layer after layer of wallpaper on the party wall. Edith is forbidden to go into the attic, and finds privacy and consolation only in the cellar, where she reads her dead mother’s books of poetry in the middle of the night. Essentially, she is a prisoner of habit, ignorance, and the past.

But fairy tales, as Bruno Bettelheim observed, are road maps to adulthood and Edith’s story is no exception. There are breaches in the defences: cracks appear, literally, and a loose brick in the wall creates a spyhole; a magazine drops through the letterbox; a receipt falls out of an old book. All are messages from the outside world, and Edith has allies out there, too, who appear when necessary—sometimes, like Dotty Hands, even arbitrarily— to point the way. For the most part they help Edith realize her dream of a garden, her first independent aspiration, but they also lighten her darkness as she moves towards the truth.

This is a quiet novel, restrained as its narrator, but it has many subtle pleasures. We see the bizarre through Edith’s sheltered eyes, but there is a counterbalance offered by the ordinariness of Jean’s chatty letters. The language reflects Edith’s poetic sensibility, especially in descriptions of the growing plants and changing seasons, and the garden itself, from the first few seeds to the hop vine rioting over the wall, is a powerful symbol of Edith’s redemption. The novel is populated by baroque characters, vivid in their oddity, but they are not allowed to distract us from Edith, for this is the story of a lonely, marginalized individual in transition, the beginning of the rest of a life. There will be no “and they lived happily ever after,” for that has nothing to do with reality, but with the revelations at the end, the prison walls crumble and there is satisfaction in knowing that Edith is free to make a start.

Margaret Thompson is past president of the Federation of BC Writers, She is the author of six books, most recently Adrift on the Ark: Our Connection to the Natural World. Number seven, a novel entitled The Cuckoo’s Child, will be a Spring 2014 publication.


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