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Morton Tends Her Roses, Yet Some Thistles Grow

  • Aug 11, 2009
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Kate Morton admittedly loves the classic Gothic tales. In her second novel, "The Forgotten Garden," this Australian author attempts to treat her audience to a beloved melding of styles and themes, the likes of which have been tested successfully before in Bronte's Jane Eyre (Vintage Classics), Du Maurier's Rebecca and Victoria Holt's Mistress of Mellyn. Morton gives it the old college try and she creates an interesting albeit long and sometimes ironically tedious labyrinth of characters whose secrets stretch out well beyond their own life spans to touch and baffle the generations that follow.

Morton moves her plotline from three different directions. Using the third person narrative to tell her tale from the perspective of her key three women, the mystery surrounding the identity of Nell, a four-year-old child found abandoned at the port in 1913 Maryborough, Australia, slowly but surely comes to light as the older Nell in 1975 and her granddaughter Cassandra in 2005 allow the reader to piece together their findings along with the eventual exposition of the enigmatic Eliza Makepeace, the writer of the old book of fairytales discovered in the tiny suitcase that comprised the lost child's only belonging.

Morton's technique of seesawing between flashback and present day scenes mimics that used frequently by television screenwriters presenting a modern day puzzle that has roots in a past era that is anything but the expected charming. She utilizes alternating chapters told from each of the appropriate third person vantage point for the moment in time when actual facts are brought to light in the chronological story. For example when the sixty-five-year-old Nell snaps a mental piece of the puzzle into the overall story timeline that spans the years 1900 to 1913, the reader flips from the actual time period of the discovery to the actual happenings in the past told as they occur from the perspective of the characters they most influence.

Unfortunately, as clever as this mode of storytelling might be--it seems to work well in larger scoped mini-series where the past and present share equal precedence--it jars the reader into a sense of confusion at times, causing the first third of the book to seem murky and disjointed. However, as the reader becomes accustomed to this jumping back and forth--this is a huge novel of over 600 pages--the plot becomes easier to follow. Ironically, Morton achieves a total immersion effect where the complexity of her muddled structure adds to the reader's urgency to not only complete the book but to overlook the obvious contrivances necessary to pull it all together at its climax.

Despite her ability to move the reader through her intricate structure, Morton suffers from what I can only call acute character similarity syndrome. When the reader is privy to Eliza, Cassandra, Nell and a raft of other players' thoughts via the third person voice, Morton does nothing to distinguish this voice psychologically. She describes the pain of these creations as they stumble through contact with their personal demons, but there is nothing that indicates, if one were to randomly choose a page, which character is which beyond the mention of name. This results in a bit of a time jolt or pause in the action that makes much of the background description framing each change of time superfluous and boring to the point where this reader was actually skipping through to defining action that moved the plot forward within each chapter.

Subtract also the rather melodramatic addition of characters and events that seem straight out of the penny dreadfuls of Dicken's time. The dastardly Mr. Mansell, the oddly pining Uncle Linus, the social-climbing Adeline, the Swindell family of Artful Dodgers, the Montrachet family of wreckers and smugglers--shades of Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier--the secret garden where Eliza brings her beloved cousin back to life (Frances Hodgson Burnett of The Secret Garden (Unabridged Classics) fame actually makes an appearance in the novel) and a jumble of other tried and true cookie cutter characters just add to the over abundance of events and verbiage that if cut could have whittled this tome down to at least 400 pages. The events of which I speak, I will not detail as they will definitely spoil the reader's satisfaction as each portion of the mystery is eventually revealed. Suffice it to say that much rides on some pretty hasty decisions made by players that need a healthy dose of pragmatism. Much ado is made of Linus's strangeness, yet he seems to function only as a red herring of sorts--I hate to say it, but he needed some extra appearances during the scenes at Blackhurst to identify him as more the viable perpetrator.

Where Morton really shines is her ability to concoct a brooding atmosphere where the dark fairytales of her Eliza Makepeace are able to gather the strength and power of thunderclouds over their perspective readers and listeners. Obviously using as inspiration the delightfully bizarre illustrations of Arthur Rackham, Kay Nielsen and Edmund Dulac (fairytale illustrator enthusiasts, check out: East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Old Tales from the North (Calla Editions),Perrault's Fairy Tales - Folio Society Edition Illustrated By Edmund Dulac, The Arthur Rackham Treasury: 86 Full-Color Illustrations, Dulac's Fairy Tale Illustrations in Full Color, and Nielsen's Fairy Tale Illustrations in Full Color), Morton creates a way for her heroine to process the harsher realities that life has set upon her by imagining and immersing within a world that albeit ruthless and cold protects her from loneliness and endows her with a valiant perseverance that can only have roots in the absolute and idealistic universe where fairies, witches, princesses and magical beings abide.

Bottom line? Perhaps the secret in Kate Morton's "The Forgotten Garden" can be unearthed by even by the most unimaginative reader; the clues are all there just waiting to be tallied and analyzed. Or perhaps, the hurried tone of the novel and its short chapters will not allow its reader time for investigation. Each segment segues with the quickness of gunfire to detail what those in the present have discovered about a past they most likely thought vintage and charming and fraught not with the dangers and avarice of men and women intent on their own desires. Nonetheless, Morton's technical construct will either befuddle the reader with its complex backwards and forwards motion or will urge its audience onward until the forgotten garden shines again with the personal truth sought by its one-time inhabitants. Although Morton lacks the finesse to fully flesh out the uber-psychological eccentricity of Mrs. Danvers of Rebecca, or depict the wistful insouciance of Martha Leigh in Holt's "Mistress of Mellyn, her decision to star in her drama an author of Victorian fairytales works magnificently to offset her stereotypical cluster of character types from other Gothic tales. Recommended a good two-day rainy day read.
Diana Faillace Von Behren

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More The Forgotten Garden: A Novel reviews
review by . June 25, 2010
Kate Morton's second novel, The Forgotten Garden, tells of a family mystery that spans more than 100 years.  The book opens with a young girl waiting on a boat deck for the mysterious "Authoress" during Edwardian times.  As an adult, Nell tries to discover who she really is what happened to the Authoress.  However, life gets in the way of her search.  Until, 30 years later, after Nell's death her granddaughter picks up where her grandmother left off.   …
review by . May 27, 2010
Someone told me The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton was good. They were right. It's long--549 pages--but I found it impossible to put down. Starting in 1913 with a child playing on a London dock, moving to Australia where a present-day woman is haunted by her past, following a grandmother in the 1930s and an orphan in the 1900s, each seeking secret leads that will find or lose their families--the scenes move from London to Cornwall to Australia and even to America, with each location and time …
review by . August 17, 2009
The Forgotten Garden is a family saga, a captivating tale of three generations of women, each of whom was abandoned. First comes Nell, found alone at age 4, on a wharf in Australia, and adopted by the harbor master. Eliza, orphaned in London by the murder of her mother, is the center link. Finally there is Cassandra, deposited with her grandmother by a mother who never returned for her. Author Morton has fashioned her story around a pervasive mystery: who is Nell, who were her parents, and why was …
review by . July 22, 2009
This story follows the lives of three women, set in three time frames (early 1900's, 1975 and 2005) but all linked together through a garden, on an estate in Cornwall. The story mostly revolves around Nell and the mystery of who she is, where she came from and how/why she ended up where she did. Nell was abound on a ship from England to Australia. She was found stranded on an Australian dock at the age of four. At that time, she was taken in by Hugh (who oversaw the dock) and was given a family …
review by . May 16, 2009
One of life's pleasures is sinking into a sprawling book like The Forgotten Garden: A Novel. Author Kate Morton weaves a story around the lives of three women in different time frames, linked by the mystery of a four-year-old girl arriving alone at an Australian port in 1913. The child has no name, no history that she can tell, nothing but a tiny suitcase with no hints to her identity. The child, Nell, is raised as his own by the dockmaster, having no idea until her 21st birthday about the mystery …
About the reviewer
Diana Faillace Von Behren ()
Ranked #166
I like just about anything. My curiosity tends to be insatiable--I love the "finding out" and the "ah-ha" moments.      Usually I review a book or film with the … more
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Amazon Best of the Month, April 2009: Like Frances Hodgson Burnett's beloved classic The Secret Garden, Kate Morton'sThe Forgotten Gardentakes root in your imagination and grows into something enchanting--from a little girl with no memories left alone on a ship to Australia, to a fog-soaked London river bend where orphans comfort themselves with stories of Jack the Ripper, to a Cornish sea heaving against wind-whipped cliffs, crowned by an airless manor house where an overgrown hedge maze ends in the walled garden of a cottage left to rot. This hidden bit of earth revives barren hearts, while the mysterious Authoress's fairy tales (every bit as magical and sinister as Grimm's) whisper truths and ignite the imaginary lives of children. As Morton draws you through a thicket of secrets that spans generations, her story could cross into fairy tale territory if her characters weren't clothed in such complex flesh, their judgment blurred by the heady stench of emotions (envy, lust, pride, love) that furtively flourished in the glasshouse of Edwardian society. While most ache for a spotless mind's eternal sunshine, the Authoress meets the past as "a cruel mistress with whom we must all learn to dance," and her stories gift children with this vital muscle memory. --Mari Malcolm

Read an excerpt and the reading group guide forThe Forgotten Garden.
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ISBN-10: 1416550542
ISBN-13: 978-1416550549
Author: Kate Morton
Genre: Literature & Fiction
Publisher: Atria, Washington Square Press
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