This month in Recommended Reads: fairytales and miracles really do take place in the real world. Or do they? These two novels may not be fantasy, but each one has its own little dash of magic.
The power of fairytales …
Kate Morton's The Forgotten Garden is one of those books I put off reading precisely because there was a buzz around it. (If there's one thing we know about hype, it's that it's rarely justified.) Yet as it turns out, this is a well-written and intricately plotted novel that deserves to be in the spotlight.
The plot is hard to capture in just a few words, alternating as it does between different people, places and times. In brief: a young Australian woman (Cassandra), whose grandmother (Nell) has recently died, picks up the threads of a search that Nell began decades earlier – a quest to find out who she really is and where she came from. In so doing, Cassandra follows in Nell's footsteps to England, to discover a remote Cornish cottage and the history of a mysterious fairytale writer known as the Authoress …
On one level, then, this is a family mystery: a complex multilayered narrative in which secrets are gradually revealed across the generations. That might be satisfying enough. Yet for me, The Forgotten Garden's richness didn't lie in the solution of its mystery (which was actually quite easy to guess at). Rather, I found it to be a reflection on how the written word both influences and is influenced by reality, and on how time is perhaps more helical than linear. Events may not repeat exactly, but parallels, similarities and coincidences (in the most basic sense of the word) connect the different strands of history together.
I may be reading more into it than Morton intended, but perhaps this is the power of a fairytale, or indeed of narrative in general: it is shaped by real-world experiences, but it also does its fair share of shaping. For how do we understand the world but through the narrative structures we impose on it?
… and of miracles
In contrast, the real joy of Grace McCleen's The Land of Decoration lies not in the plot but in the narrative voice. The entire story is told from the perspective of Judith, a ten-year-old girl. Brought up by her devoutly religious father, longing for a mother she never knew, she is bullied at school. Her only consolation is the miniature world she has built in her bedroom – the eponymous Land of Decoration. And then, one day, what she does in the Land of Decoration begins to manifest itself in the real world …
Obviously the book has strong religious themes, but it certainly isn't a polemic one way or the other (though I think it highlights quite clearly what some of the consequences can be of bringing up a child in a fundamentalist religious environment). It's left up to the reader to decide how much, if any, of Judith's experience is true divine intervention; the 'miracles' in the book could equally well be explained by coincidence, and Judith's conversations with God the vivid imaginings of a lonely and impressionable child. In a way, it doesn't matter. The power of the novel is its ability to completely immerse the reader in a child's thoughts and feelings. It's a wonderful reminder of how differently children can interpret things, and how they all construct an idiosyncratic understanding of the world from their own unique experiences.