rating: 3 of 5 stars
I received my copy of Sarah Singleton’s The Poison Garden from a Simon & Schuster UK LiveJournal giveaway (along with a bookmark, postcard, and neat little button). The only unfortunate thing with this is that the book has not been released in the UK, much less in the United States where I’m from, and Amazon won’t let me publish my review! This happened with The 13 Treasures (which I loved) and Burial as well; hopefully I can keep an eye on when Amazon’s US website finally gives the go ahead for reviews on these three books. Other than that, I place reviews on my LiveJournal, three LiveJournal book communities and GoodReads.com.
The Poison Garden is an ambitious book that attempts to, in a little under 282 pages, accomplish what might better be served in twice that much space. The narrative opens in a cemetery on a windy winter day at the funeral of 10-year-old Thomas Reiter’s grandmother, Augusta Jane. Sister of 11 siblings, Augusta had only one daughter, Thomas’ mother, Ellen. Raised in luxury and perhaps resentful or unappreciative of the life her parents cultivated around her, Ellen married a poor young entrepreneur and forever doomed herself to a life distanced from her grandparents who disapproved of the marriage. Ellen and Dieter had a large family--seven children--and it was for her grandchildren that Augusta reopened communication. Thus connected, the family gathers at her posh mansion after the funeral for the reading of the Will. While his parents and numerous great aunts and uncles are accosted by the lawyer, Thomas ventures alone into his grandmother’s garden.
Here is where the structure of Singleton’s book begins to suffer from a bit of rushed story-telling. The narrative never explicitly dates itself (either in the text or on the jacket), but because I had read the description on Amazon’s UK website knew it took place in the 1850s. Knowing this helps a great deal, I think, although a rough estimation of the time period can be gleaned from certain vocabulary as well as the reminder of certain antiquated setting pieces. In any event, this wasn’t much of a big deal; I point it out only because I was curious and had to look it up again after I’d forgotten and the book itself was of no help in this.
Thomas is exploring in his grandmother’s garden and there’s memories of her mannerisms (cold, distant) and odd behavior related to certain kitchen experiments, an allusion to Thomas’ curiosity and interest in her gardening habits and perhaps an awareness of this on her part. He wanders until he approaches a sundial with an odd wooden box laying open on top. But before he can do more than stare in fascination, Thomas realizes he is no longer in his grandmother’s backyard. The garden has transformed--a new archway of briars and a stone pathway leading into the unknown beckons Thomas forward. He follows, lured by an odd, disembodied voice until he finds himself face to face with a strange man.
And here his adventures begin. Nehemiah Alfred Blake (“Blake”) introduces himself as Augusta’s neighbor and asks Thomas to meet him at the sundial at midnight. When Thomas gets back to the house, he has to hurry to the reading of the Will where his family is caught between anger, shock, and dismay--Augusta’s mansion and the majority of her income is bequeathed to a mysterious 3rd party; poor Ellen and Dieter are short-changed and Thomas receives a chest filled with odd papers and drawings, money for an apprenticeship in the city when he turns 14, as well as the wooden box he’d seen earlier in the garden, now removed and placed mysteriously inside of the chest. Restless, Thomas goes to his grandmother’s former room to while away the hours until midnight when in a rush, menacing shadows and Blake appear warning Thomas of a change in plans. The box is being hunted and the man and boy flee to the garden where a battle of strength is played out between Blake and their pursuer which results in Blake’s death and the revelation that Thomas’ grandmother had many, many secrets. All within the first two (very short) chapters of the book. There is a break in the narrative and a flash forward to four years later on the eve of Thomas’ departure for London and Constantine & Blacklow’s Pharmaceutical Chemist shop.
What I should have mentioned earlier is that The Poison Garden is broken into several sections, each with a title of what you later learn is the name of a different Garden. What you don’t find out right away is the significance of the name--the names known only to the reader at this point--or the magic involved in Augusta’s expanding garden. Despite jumping into the adventure of the story almost right away, I was positive the narrative would slow enough so the exposition could catch up with events, but it felt as if for most of the book the explanations were either too shallow (but maybe appropriate considering the length of the book) or too rushed. A lot of the events felt out of place and the fast-paced action and parsing of information went by too fast for the climax to really benefit from the suspense Singleton tried to create. In fact, the lack of space necessary to build up the suspense is the main thing that bothered me about The Poison Garden.
At first I thought that the genre dictated where and when the plot went, but only if it had been a children’s book and not YA (here I’m thinking particularly of The Chronicle of Narnia books). The writing was good, really good, and that disappointed me even more. Since the writing was at a respectable and admirable level for young adults, I was sad to see the narrative fall short in its pacing and execution. At times the transitions from each section were jumpy and awkward, as if Singleton was operating intentionally under restricted page limit and had to get information out sooner than was comfortable. The plot suffered and left me wanting more than I got. Which is a shame because it started off so promising and the writing is pleasant and alluring, even sophisticated at times.
I found myself more interested in the backstory of the Guild of Medical Herbalists than I was with Thomas and the unraveling of Augusta’s apparent poisoning and the other odd murders that followed. That’s not to say Thomas’ present wasn’t interesting, but because Singleton pushed us forward so quickly, the return to events of a past that lingered and allowed for more character development and an emotional connection with them left me wishing she had paid better care to do that more often and in the beginning of the book so I wasn’t left feeling detached and uncaring by the end.
Another minor complaint is the confused dialogue of Lee, the American member of the Guild. I’m not sure if Singleton was ever comfortable with writing an American accent; Lee’s speech awkwardly combined formal and informal words and phrases that made it difficult sometimes to read conversation with him and not start smiling in amusement at whether or not I could figure out what tone he was trying to use.
Singleton never goes back to the papers Thomas finds in the chest he inherits from his grandmother. Considering how fast things progress I wasn’t surprised, but he never even goes back in memory to draw any real significance to the papers which may or may not have been important after all.
The concept of Eden and the separation of gardens, each altered by the imagination of the owner is so amazing and creative I couldn’t help wishing the book had been written with better pacing, was a lot longer or had even been chopped into a duology to draw out the character’s personalities a little more and invest the audience with more of a connection between them and the beautiful gardens. The suspense would have been a lot better as a result if I felt drawn enough to the characters to really root for their success. Instead, Singleton tried to integrate two suspenseful threads together too quickly enough for me to invest any attachment to either one.
I’m glad I read it anyway and recommend this to fans of the whimsical, magical, and suspenseful. Just remember, it’s listed as YA, but reads (in execution of events, not the actual writing) more like a book aimed at a much younger audience.
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