Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Night Gardener (Jonathan Auxier)

In my continuing series of "books that people are excited about in 2014," I picked up The Night Gardener a few months ago. I hadn't yet read Auxier's previous novel, Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, but then I did. I enjoyed it very much and looked forward to his second book with a strange amount of glee, especially because it sounded so weird and unsettling. Also, a shiny, silvery cover.

Molly and Kip are two kids from Ireland who are basically orphans--their parents have been indentured into piracy, or at least that's what Molly's saying--leaving Molly in charge of Kip, who has a lame leg. They take a job working as caretakers of an old English estate for the Windsor family, who, because of recent financial difficulties, have re-inhabited the abandoned home. The mansion is rundown, overgrown, and is maybe making the family sick. There's a mysterious figure that appears in the house at night, or so Molly thinks, and she's starting to feel very unsettled, especially because the Windsors are oddly attached to the old tree on the property.

The Night Gardener is a middle-grade fantasy that aims in a lot of directions and successfull hits all its targets. On the one hand, this story succeeds in being a creepy "estate horror" like The Turn of the Screw or (to a lesser extent) Rebecca; there are a few passages that are genuinely perturbing, which is a great demonstration of how in control Auxier is of his mood, atmospherics, and suspense writing. The descriptions of the Windsors growing ever more wan are quietly frightening, and the scenes featuring the titular Night Gardener read almost like the pages of a scary movie script.

In another direction, it's fabulistic--there's magic and wishes and consequences and lessons for everyone. It feels very much like a fairy tale, a gruesome one, one that teaches about being satisfied with what you have. I, of course, love the aesthetic, which Auxier once again nails; there's a story within our story about the tree on the Windsor estate, a pseudo-fable that is very thoughtfully arranged (by which I mean it reads like it's been around for centuries). The message of the story bleeds into the character's lives as they realize maybe they're part of the narrative, another element that adds to the creepy feeling of the book.

A common thread in the author's two books is its inclusion of characters with disability. Here, it's Kip, who has a severely twisted leg. The inner dialogue that Kip has about his own physicality is engaging and painful. This year has been a year where people push for diverse literature, and so it's refreshing to experience a middle-grade novel with a disabled character that isn't necessarily keen to remind us at every turn about his disability, but can have serious, sophisticated monologues about himself. Like every other character in The Night Gardener, Kip is very thoroughly dimensional. All these characters, just like us, are driven by their fears: never being seen as normal, never seeing our parents again, being powerless in the world. He belongs to a cast of characters that is fascinating and breathing.

But that's not all. The meditation that this book offers on stories and storytelling is delightful, too. Molly and Kip meet an old woman who has dedicated her life to collecting and telling stories, and it inspires Molly, a character we are told early on has an almost supernatural ability to persuade people through her fictionalized versions of reality. Auxier wants us to consider how powerful stories really can be, how they can not only represent the world but shape and alter it, depending on how we wield them.

The Night Gardener is a fantastic novel, one that really pushes and presses the reader to think. Auxier's writing always feels like it's expecting--perhaps even demanding--more from its readers than the average middle-grade book. The book feels stunningly adult, whatever that means. He never lets the plot be clouded with puerile ideas or writing, and that was very refreshing for me. It's lovely to see books that work for all ages, instead of working so hard to tailor themselves to one age group. This is is for certain a keeper.

My rating: 5/5
The Night Gardener on Goodreads
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