Book Talk: Books plant you in their plot

Not everyone keeps a garden. For some people it is simply enough to read about gardens of a different kind.

The advent of spring is here and many gardeners are already tilling the soil and planting lettuce and peas. But not everyone keeps a garden. For some people it is simply enough to read about gardens of a different kind.

The Savage Garden (2007) by Mark Mills is certainly about a different kind of garden. It is a remarkable story of suspense set in the hills of Tuscany about two murders, 400 years apart, and the ties that bind them together.

Adam Strickland, a young Cambridge scholar, is sent to Tuscany by his professor to study the memorial garden of the Villa Docci, a garden built in the 14th century and dedicated to the memory of Signor Docci’s dead wife. It is a surreal, mysterious world of statures, grottoes, arbours and classical inscriptions. In the course of his research, Adam begins to suspect the strange iconography of the garden may hold clues to the murder of the young Signora Docci. As his research progresses, he also discovers clues to another possible murder in the more recent past. Nazi officers shot one of the current signora’s sons on the third floor of the villa and her husband, now dead, insisted the area be sealed and preserved forever.

A Savage Garden is an engrossing suspenseful novel, with a tight plot, entertaining and rounded characters and a captivating setting. The layers of the Villa Docci’s past are peeled away, like the layers of an onion, to reveal a compelling tale of love, greed and murder.

The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin (2011) by Erik Larson is a narrative non-fiction work that captures the surprising nuances and complexity of a terrible period. It is an unvarnished eyewitness account that sheds a remarkable light on why the world did not recognize the perilous threat posed by Hitler until Europe became awash in blood and terror.

The time is 1933 and William F. Dodd, America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany, arrives in Berlin with his wife, son and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the courteous, handsome SS soldiers surrounding her family and their ebullient enthusiasm for restoring Germany to world prominence. In fact, she has one affair after another, including one with the first chief of the Gestapo.

Dodd soon realizes the true character of the New Germany and watches with alarm as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first-person testimony, the press is censored, surveillance increases and drafts of frightening news laws begin to circulate. Unfortunately, the State Department back home remains indifferent, despite the telegraphs of mounting concern they receive from Dodd.

The Garden of Beasts is a grim read at times but it vividly captures the oppressive, tense atmosphere and events of the Third Reich in real time, including unforgettable portraits of its leaders.

The Constant Gardener (2010) by John le Carre is a compelling, passionate tale of the dark side of rampant capitalism crafted by one of the finest writers in any genre.

Tessa Quayle, a beautiful young lawyer, is killed after discovering a pharmaceutical firm and devious doctors are surreptitiously testing a flawed drug on poor Kenyan villagers. Her husband, Justin Quayle – an amateur gardener, aging widower and British High Commission bureaucrat– sets out to find the killers and stop the dangerous drug testing himself.

The author is a master at drawing eminently credible characters in depth, including the remarkably charismatic and idealistic heroine, and the plotting is unparalleled in this work, as one would expect with Le Carre at the top of his form. He authoritatively describes settings as diverse as Nairobi, Elba, Switzerland and Canada and it is clearly evident he knows how the world works much better than most novelists writing today.

These three titles are available through the Okanagan Regional Library

Peter Critchley is a reference librarian at the Vernon branch of the Okanagan Regional Library.