Monday, August 10, 2020

Book Review: Shadow Garden

By Jami Deise

"Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?" Queen’s Freddie Mercury isn’t the only one to have asked this question. It’s a game that I think most people—or at least most writers—entertain themselves with at some time or another: Am I making all this up in my head, while I’m really in a hospital or mental institution somewhere? And for the past few years, it’s been an interesting subgenre in mystery fiction. The unreliable narrator doesn’t know how she (and it’s almost always a she) got to where she is. She can’t remember. She was drunk. She was in an accident. She’s bi-polar.

Alexandra Burt’s Shadow Garden is not the writer’s first foray into this sub-genre; her Remember Mia is not as well known as A.J Finn’s The Woman in the Window or Alex Michaelides’s The Silent Patient, but all four books have a similar feel. The “Shadow Garden” in Shadow Garden is the upscale condo development where Donna Pryor is waited on hand and foot. She wants for nothing, except for a phone call from her adult daughter, Penelope, or her ex-husband, Edward. But not everything is as it seems at Shadow Garden, and as mementoes of her previous life as the lady of the manor start popping up, Donna tries to remember what happened to bring her to this place.

Burt’s voice is extremely gothic, and the deliberate pacing and small plot points add to the old-fashioned feel of the book. Even when Burt writes in Penelope or Edward’s point of view (she uses third person for them, while first person for Donna), the dreamy, almost underwater feeling remains.

In truth, it took me a while to get into Shadow Garden. It’s much more mystery than suspense, and without the urgent need to know what was going to happen next, the voice wasn’t enough to keep me completely engaged. There’s a broad rule among fiction writers that if the central conflict of the story can be cleared up in a conversation, the conflict isn’t enough to carry the book, and for much of the first part of Shadow Garden, that rule seemed to be in effect. But I was intrigued enough to want to find out what happened, and that kept me going to finish the book.

My yardstick for this subgenre is the question of whether the ultimate reveal is so substantial, it doesn’t matter whether the story was told by an unreliable narrator or not. In the case of Shadow Garden, I honestly think the book might have been better had it been told in a linear fashion. It happens early enough in the book that it’s not a spoiler to reveal that Penelope was troubled from a very young age (she stabs another child with a fork at a birthday party), and the reader figures out very quickly that Donna’s memory lapse has something to do with Penelope’s fate. Rather than choosing the trendy unreliable narrator to ask the question of what happened, I wonder about the book that would have resulted if Burt had decided to ask the question of how far is too far for parents to go to protect their child. That’s a conundrum that can resonate so much further than the trendy “What did I do” crisis.

Thanks to Berkley for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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