” She was gripped then by an urge, a need—a love, she supposed it was—so ferocious, that each grain of her self was infused with certainty. It was as if her own body recognized this child to whom she had given life as readily as she recognized her own hand, her own face in a mirror, her own voice in the dark. ” (48,527)
The Forgotten Garden is at heart a mystery. A tiny girl is abandoned on a ship headed for Australia in 1913. Upon arrival in Queensland, a dock master, Hugh, discovers the 4-year-old who has been left alone on the wharf. Since nobody comes to claim her, nor does she remember who she is, other than the fact that she is meant to travel with the Authoress, Hugh and his wife Lil decide to keep her and raise her as their own. They name her Nell.
She found she couldn’t look at her little sisters without seeing her own foreignness, and yet she couldn’t tell them the truth . . . But it wasn’t enough. She was a lie, had been living a lie, and she refused to do so any longer. (8,62-63)
On her 21st birthday her parents tell her the truth, and with her sense of self shattered, she alienates herself from the family. It’s not until Nell is 65 that her father finally gives her the suitcase that she traveled with on the voyage from England. In the present day, Nell’s granddaughter, Cassandra, is grieving Nell’s passing. As she goes through Nell’s notebooks and a volume of fairy stories written by one Eliza Makepeace, she realizes that Nell has incessantly searched for her birth parents. The old woman has set out on journey to England on a heritage quest to find her real identity. The search leads her to Blackhurst Manor on the Cornish coast and the secrets of the doomed Mountrachet family, a family that “wanted things they shouldn’t or couldn’t have” and destroy lives with their avarice, entitlement, and perversions. Eliza the Authoress is among their unfortunate victims, for her own mother eloped with a sailor and brought disgrace to the family. Eliza was brought back to the manor as a portégée to her cousin Rose, who is chronically ill.
Work has started on the wall at the cottage. Mama felt, and rightly, that it was best to do it while Eliza is away. The cottage is too vulnerable. It was all well and good for it to remain exposed in olden times when its use was more nefarious, but it no longer needs to signal out to sea. Quite the contrary: there is none among us now who wishes exposure. (38,397)
It’s not until Cassandra takes up the search after Nell’s death that the pieces of the puzzles and the many clues parceled out throughout the switching narratives from past to present and in between (primarily the years of 1913, 1975, and 2005), are assembled. It’s at a decrepit cottage and its walled garden, which swallows the shameful family secrets and buried within its ground, where Cassandra finally discovers the truths meant to be hidden forever by the family.
Take more than a coat of paint to clear that place of all the misfortune it’s seen. That place should’ve been burned down years ago. There were things went on there that weren’t right. (24,232)
The Forgotten Garden is one enthralling story and, with patience from a reader, delivers very satisfactory answers. The constant shifting of perspectives over times seems confusing at first but quickly it stops being an encumbrance. Morton’s excellent pacing, and her refrained manner in dropping subtle clues, have grabbed me from the beginning and sustain my interest. The novel weaves together a lush tapestry of women’s lives, love, friendship, anger, and betrayal. Morton shows us someone unforgettable, a fairy queen trapped in mortal flesh, whose suffering for love transcends one’s first judgment and whose commitment to what matters transcends one’s regret at having misunderstood. The bottom line of this spellbound novel is love—maternal love and sororal love.
549 pp. Hardback. [Read/
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