Sunday, February 14, 2010

Gardening Leave

There are already many good reasons to love Tuscany: the delightfully sensual landscape, the magnificent architecture, the glorious food and the ravishing women (or is it ravishing food and glorious women?), but we can now happily add another one to the long list: Mark Mills’ second novel, “The Savage Garden”, which is a haunting tale of murder, love, divided loyalties and innocence lost set in post-war Italy. It’s a beautifully evocative story of a “long hot summer”, as far removed from “Chiantishire” as you could imagine, though Mills does describe the cities of Florence and Siena with much affection, while perfectly capturing the mysterious atmosphere of the eponymous garden.

Mark Mills is a British author, who has lived in both Italy and France. Like the hero in “The Savage Garden”, he also graduated from Cambridge University. To date, he has only published three novels, though his first book “Amagansett” won the 2004 award for Best Crime Novel by a Debut Author from the prestigious Crime Writers Association. Subsequently re-titled the somewhat less cryptic “The Whaleboat House”, Mills’ debut immediately exhibited his brand of elegant, stylish writing, but also established his trademark themes of time and place, namely setting his stories in the period after World War II in exotic locations (in this case, Long Island). In the same vein, his third novel “The Information Officer” is located in Malta, though this time the story actually takes place during the Second World War.

"This Charming Man"

In “The Savage Garden”, an indolent student, Adam Strickland, follows up a suggestion by his tutor, the learned Professor Crispin Leonard, to travel to the Villa Docci in Tuscany to study the architecture for his thesis. Although the professor offers muted praise for the house itself, “An impressive, if somewhat pedestrian, example of High Renaissance Tuscan vernacular”, he is more effusive about the stunning garden, where “art and nature come together to create a whole new entity”. During his studies, Adam finds himself drawn towards two possible murders and the (family) ties that bind them together, even though they are separated by four hundred years. The first secret is uncovered via a series of clues in the 16th century garden, while the second mystery is altogether closer to home, just after the Nazi occupation of Italy came to a violent end. Solving the first puzzle turns Adam into something of an academic hero, but speculating on the latter places his life in danger.

Built by a banker as a memorial to his wife, who died in 1548 at the tender age of 25, the striking, but disquieting, garden becomes truly enchanted for Adam. A dazzling vision of wooded glades, grottoes, temples, reflecting pools and classical statues of “petrified gods, goddesses and nymphs playing out their troubled stories on this leafy stage”, it seems to give the habitual slacker a sense of purpose for the first time in his young life. The fascinating garden is used as a plot vehicle to introduce us to Italian history and culture, as well as the Doccis’ family background, but is described in loving detail, “Having laid out this new kingdom, Federico had then dedicated it to Flora, goddess of flowers, and populated it with the characters from ancient mythology over whom she held sway: Hyacinth, Narcissus and Adonis. All had died tragically, and all lived on in the flowers that burst from the earth where their blood had spilled - the same flowers that still enameled the ground in their respective areas of the garden every springtime”. Little wonder that Adam takes time to smell the flowers, so to speak.

"Until I learn to accept my reward"

Everyone believes that the grieving husband had designed the garden as a spectacular homage to his dead wife, emphasised by carving her name into the triumphal arch over the splendid amphitheatre, but Adam senses that something is not quite right about the place. He is struck by certain discordant elements in the garden’s symmetry with the placement of the statues and their expressions oddly dissonant and even unsettling, especially a rather provocative marble statue of the banker’s wife. He begins to suspect that the garden’s iconography contains a far more sinister message, representing the late Signor Docci’s confession that he murdered his wife, but also explaining the motive for his crime. The cuckolded husband had actually poisoned his spouse to avenge her adulterous ways. A savage garden indeed.

Ignoring any statu(t)e of limitations, Adam makes use of classical Italian literature to piece together the clues. He first consults Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”, a volume given to him by his professor, in an attempt to discern the meaning of the different statues and whom they might represent, but he eventually realises that this is a false trail. However, his literary approach is still valid and a careful reading of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” enables him to decipher the husband’s intentions, as the nine-tiered garden is clearly modeled on the nine circles of hell.

The story parallels a more recent killing, when Emilio, the eldest son of Signora Francesca Docci, the imperious, but frail matriarch of the Villa, was shot by German soldiers as they retreated. However, Adam discovers that there are several versions of this death and he cannot understand why Francesca has sealed off the floor where Emilio was murdered, as this obliges the family to live forever with this painful memory. Just as he did in “The Whaleboat House”, Mills uses a suspicious death as a way to examine the scars from war that have never quite healed in a tight-knit community. The German occupation devastated the village with understandable tensions still present between the families of collaborators and partisans. The Docci family had come to an understanding with the culture-loving Nazi officer, so that the Villa’s works of art and historical gardens were maintained, but this arrangement was unexpectedly terminated in a disastrous, drunken night of violence, leaving dark secrets hidden within the family domain.

Having said that this is a book about two mysteries, it’s not really a traditional whodunit, but more of an intriguing puzzle – a genuine literary thriller. You will have to look elsewhere for blood, gore, forensics and a high body count, though Mills skillfully creates a growing air of menace with the relative lack of action only increasing the suspense. No, this is a novel of detection, reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, at one stage Adam shares a private joke with his brother Harry that references Arthur Conan Doyle’s finest creation. However, don’t expect a neat dénouement in the style of Agatha Christie, where the culprit is dramatically unveiled before the assembled guests. Mills is much more restrained and understated than that.

"Hold your head high"

At its heart, the book is really about Adam’s development, his coming of age, where he starts to use his brain, rather than always taking the easy option. Like his namesake in the Garden of Eden (don’t tell me that’s a coincidence), Adam rises to the challenge – in both senses. We first encounter him as a rather lazy student, before accompanying him in the guise of innocent abroad, though there is a mounting sense of a loss of innocence in our hero, like Michael Frayn’s nostalgic “Spies”. Initially a reluctant detective (“This means nothing to me/Oh, Siena”), he slowly becomes an obsessive investigator, as he is profoundly affected by his environment. In Cambridge Adam was unceremoniously dumped by his girlfriend, but in the warmth of Italy he transforms into Mr. Loverman, bedding not one, but two Latin lovelies. In the end, the youthful scholar comes away with much more than a thesis, “barely recognising himself”.

There are romantic diversions aplenty in this novel with love (and lust) playing a large role throughout. Adam finds the Docci family, their house and unique garden equally seductive, but he is also captivated by the more earthy pleasures offered by the gorgeous widow Signora Fanelli, the sexually frustrated owner of the local pensione, who is described as a “stringier version of Gina Lollobrigida in Trapeze”. Good enough for Adam – and for most red-blooded males, I would have thought.

"Storm in a teacup"

In the course of his investigations, Adam also has a fling with Antonella, the scarred, but alluring, granddaughter of Signora Docci. He is even more entranced by her feminine charms than the mystifying garden, though her valuable insight helps him to penetrate its hidden meaning. Ultimately he is only fixated on solving the puzzle at the cost of their relationship, which almost brings to life the description of the garden’s temple, “The building was dedicated to Echo, the unfortunate nymph who fell hard for Narcissus. He, too preoccupied with his own beauty, spurned her attentions, whereupon Echo, heartbroken, faded away until only her voice remained.”

Moving stuff, but the beautiful Antonella may not be everything she appears to be. Has she in fact been deceiving Adam? He begins to suspect that his summer project is an elaborate set-up, where he is not proceeding of his own volition, but is being used as a pawn in Signora Docci’s Machiavellian schemes to uncover the truth behind the Villa’s two suspicious deaths. Professor Leonard had warned Adam not to under-estimate his hostess, even though she might be old and frail. The Docci’s have some murky skeletons hidden away in their “History of Violence”.

In fact, everyone appears to have something to hide in this novel about the art of duplicity – about young love, betrayal and sibling rivalry. Adam’s older, roguish brother Harry turns up out of the blue, ostensibly to provide some light relief in his role as a scrounging raconteur, but he also highlights Adam’s lack of perception about their own family secrets, when he informs him that their father has been playing away with his secretary. Similar to the poignant “The Whaleboat House”, which served as a lyrical lament to the fishing community whose traditional way of life was threatened by the arrival of wealthy New Yorkers, a keen sense of loss and longing also suffuses Mills’ second novel, affecting all those we encounter.

One of the author’s great strengths is to draw a cast of credible characters with the appropriate shades of light and dark. Mills himself has said, “There is an old adage in scriptwriting circles which goes ‘character is action’. The plot can only do a certain amount. If the characters don't hold the attention of the reader, then you are fighting an uphill battle”, which is difficult to contradict. In this book, the individuals are all solid, charming, likable people, and it is all too easy to see how Adam believes them. Fausto, a surprisingly well read, but cynical, former soldier actually warns him of the dangers of getting too close to the family, “Be careful up there at the Villa Docci. It’s a bad place and people have a tendency to die there”. Then there is Maria, the unfriendly housekeeper, who acts as Signora Docci’s eyes and ears, appraising Adam “as if he were a horse she was thinking of betting on (and leaving him with the distinct impression that she wouldn’t be reaching for her purse anytime soon)”.

"Mystery man"

This is a good example of Mills’ crisp, elegant prose, but other instances abound. During a storm, “The treetops swayed like drunken lovers on a dance floor”. A work of art is not considered a masterpiece, “but it was distinctive, an unsettling blend of innocence and intensity - like the gaze of a child staring at you from the rear window of the car in front”. His very pleasing writing style is erudite and intelligent, without ever being pretentious or condescending. There are many literary pleasures to be found here: rich imagery, lush characterisations and wonderfully comprehensive research. Its beauty lies in its subtlety, as his knowledge of art, history, literature and nature is worn lightly, yet convincingly, providing far more depth than you would expect in most crime novels. Not only does he manage to artfully weave his way through a multi-layered narrative, seamlessly switching between three time periods, but his plot is deftly paced, taking its time, while still managing to be totally gripping.

Obvious comparisons would include Iain Pears for his blend of crime and history, though his novels are set in a much earlier era, and EM Forster, whose “A Room with a View” was memorably located in Florence. However, John Fowles’ “The Magus” is possibly more apposite, as it also features a seductive young girl leading a perplexed protagonist into a secret world. In terms of the psychological suspense, fans of PD James would surely not be disappointed in Mills’ work.

"Bound for glory"

“The Savage Garden” will appeal to those who love a good mystery (or two). As one of the novel’s characters says, “Things can make sense at the time, but as you get older those consolations no longer help you sleep. It's the only thing I've learned. We all think we know the answer, and we're all wrong. Shit, I'm not sure we even know what the question is”. By the end of the story, it’s not only Adam who has fallen under the spell of the garden. And, by the way, you don’t need to like gardening to enjoy this book.

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