Book Review for “Small Eden” by Jane Davis.
Summary: “1884. The symptoms of scarlet fever are easily mistaken for teething, as Robert Cooke and his pregnant wife Freya discover at the cost of their two infant sons. Freya immediately isolates for the safety of their unborn child. Cut off from each other, there is no opportunity for husband and wife to teach each other the language of their loss. By the time they meet again, the subject is taboo. But unspoken grief is a dangerous enemy. It bides its time. A decade later and now a successful businessman, Robert decides to create a pleasure garden in memory of his sons, in the very same place he found refuge as a boy – a disused chalk quarry in Surrey’s Carshalton. But instead of sharing his vision with his wife, he widens the gulf between them by keeping her in the dark. It is another woman who translates his dreams. An obscure yet talented artist called Florence Hoddy, who lives alone with her unmarried brother, painting only what she sees from her window…”
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Fiction; Settings: Historical, England; Other Categories: Novel, Family Saga, Biographical.
The tagline for this novel is “A boy with his head in the clouds. A man with a head full of dreams.” And the thing is with this book, there’s something very dreamy about Davis’ prose, which I feel is slightly different from her other works. This could be because Davis was trying to set a particular atmosphere to fit the era, and if so, kudos to her, because it came across just perfectly. This was enhanced by the flowing of the action between the main character, Robert Cooke, and the other characters, in particular, with his mother, and with Florence Hoddy, who designs his pleasure garden.
Something else I noticed in this book is how Davis gets us into Cooke’s head by voicing his unspoken thoughts with italicized text. I have seen this mechanic before, but usually these passages are prefaced by “he thought” or “he wanted to say” but Davis doesn’t bother with that, and yet there’s no confusion. We can easily see what he’s thinking, and then see what he actually says. These are both amusing and poignant, and as the story unfolds, we get to know Robert very well, probably better than anyone else in the story seems to know him, and maybe even better than he knows himself.
At the same time, we also watch Robert as he observes the various the women in his life. Aside from Florence and his mother, we also witness his very different relationships with his two daughters, as well as see how his wife Freya seems to fade in and out of Robert’s consciousness. This highly reflective and poetic style spills over into all of the various narratives, where each of the main and secondary characters get their say. The fact that these chapters received little to no segues could have made this confusing, but for the most part, within a line or two, we knew precisely what aspect of the story was being told, and which characters were at the focus of that particular scene. I might even say that there was a blurring between the various sections, but like with a delicate watercolor painting, where the pencil outlines were still visible beneath the colored washes.
Am I sounding too poetic here? Perhaps, but I can’t help it – at least not this time. That’s because the more you read this novel, you’ll notice how all these dreams that the characters have are much like clouds, as they shift and slowly disappear. How Davis portrays this with such a gentleness was just a joy to behold. Furthermore, although I haven’t read all of Davis’ books, this one is set furthest in the past of all the others I’ve read, and Davis’ ethereal style here perfectly evokes the last years of the 19th century and first years of the 20th one. It is almost as if Davis has put a sepia patina on her writing so that we can not just feel, but see the age of this story and her characters.
Yes, I’m getting poetic again, but as you can see, I truly fell in love with this book. In addition, I found it fascinating that this novel was inspired by the man who built the home she lives in today, and her love of her own home infused this book. The characters are flawed while still being likeable – some are even very lovable. The plot here of one man’s dreams to memorialize his two dead sons by building his “pleasure gardens” for them, is enhanced by watching this family saga unfold. Finally, I thought it fitting that Robert’s main employ was growing poppies for the opium trade, and we all know how that drug can be both healing and destructive. That’s quite a metaphor, if you ask me. I think then it should be obvious that I am wholeheartedly recommending this novel, and I have no choice but to give it a full five out of five stars (even though it didn’t make me cry outright, but I did have a tear in my eye a couple times near the end, and I did laugh a few times as well).
Rossdale Print Productions released “Small Eden” by Jane Davis on April 30, 2022 (although some sites say May 30). This book is (or will be) available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Foyles, The Book Depository UK and Book Depository US (both with free worldwide delivery), Waterstones, Kobo US (eBooks and audiobooks). I would like to thank the author for sending me the ARC of this novel.