I had a lovely day in a spa with my friend Sarah just before starting my new job in April and she recommended two great books for some escapist relaxing reading. Both are from a genre I very much enjoy and have blogged about a lot before – mysterious tales set earlier in the twentieth century in a beautiful location (see my blogs on Sally Beauman, Kate Morton, The Midnight Rose, Hothouse Flower, The Seven Sisters and The Shell Seekers).
The first was Larkswood by Valerie Mendes, a book which is actually set in the Grayshott spa near where I live that we were in the day that my friend Sarah was reading it and recommended it. The second was The Savage Garden by Mark Mills.
Larkswood was not one of my all time favourites of this kind of book, but it did have a lot going for it. The reason it’s not up there with some of the others for me was that I found it hard to be as sympathetic to the characters once you realised what was really going on between them. Without giving too much away, it’s a brave plot and one I’ve not seen tackled before, but left me going from righteous indignation on their behalf to not really knowing how to feel.
However, the immediate pre-war upper-class atmosphere I have read about elsewhere in non-fiction (for instance see my blog on Black Diamonds) was captured perfectly. I really enjoyed the excellent descriptions of wartime life in a big country house and the local village and it very well described the beautiful countryside I am lucky enough to live in. Her walks in the woods are my walks in the same woods, that I do as often as I can at weekends. I also enjoyed reading about the protagonist using my local train station to go up and down to London.
I actually think The Savage Garden is a terrible title for this book. It somehow suggested to me that it would be not that well written and a bit sensationalist, so I was more than pleasantly surprised to be swept up in its world of post-war Italy still coming to terms with its past (particularly interesting to me having read and blogged on Italy’s Sorrow about the war in Italy).
It follows a young undergraduate going to Tuscany to do an academic study of a garden and to discover its secrets. As he does so, he gets to know the family who live there very well and begins to touch on a dark past that almost leads to him being killed and that does lead to him uncovering a wartime murder. Meanwhile he makes an academic breakthrough and falls in love. This book, therefore, had everything for me. It was very well written and totally engaging. This was the first time a book nearly made my miss my stop on the way home in the two years that I have been doing my commute – I was so engrossed that I had to grab my bags and leap off when I realised we were somehow already pulling into my station. So I’d really recommend it.