I was expecting that the book might feel a bit foreign in time or place or both — ie, for some obstacle to crop up I could point at and say, ah ha, that's why this book never caught on here: American kids can't relate to [fill in the blank]. And I did note bits of the book that pushed the "o tempora o mores" button: the plot is set up by a measles outbreak (did they really have no measles vaccine in 1958? wow); characters discuss their bathing habits (once a week vs. three times a week, eeek); another part of the plot revolves around the monarchy and the difference between Early and Late Victorians. But the main thing that had my antennae twitching was the very title. So boys love gardens, do they? Little Tyler and Brendan are busy swapping packs of radish seeds and discussing hedge-trimming cheatz, are they? No? Then I think we may have our winner.
Of course, this is not to suggest that today's commodity culture is better than that in which kids actually went outside and made their own fun. But here's what strikes me as odd. Let's put aside that American kids today are more likely to be inside with their Playstations than dreaming of wandering around outside. Let's put aside that those kids who are the outdoorsy type are much more likely to be skateboarding or playing a sport than exploring the wonders of nature. Still, the question remains: why a garden? That sounds awfully appealing to me now, of course — I could get into growing strawberries in the summer — but as a kid? I don't know if this is a cultural thing or purely idiosyncratic, but to me, a bounded outdoors doesn't feel much like an outdoors at all. Tom's Midnight Forest or Tom's Midnight Canyon holds out the possibility of fun and adventure. Tom's Midnight Garden holds out the possibility of vegetables. Of course the story itself is not actually about gardening, but that's what the title implies to this American ear.1
So what is the story about, if not about the finer points of raising asparagus? Well, it's about playing and the means by which an unloved orphan girl finds someone to play with, which is sentimental enough but it's the sort of sentiment that appeals to me — and in any case, the characters are all so reserved (I hate to go to the stereotype, but it's hard to resist dropping the phrase "British reserve" right about now) that overt sappiness is safely averted. The story also touches on childhood's end and how young people change over time, which, as I've noted elsewhere, is the major theme of my own work to date, and while this was hardly a revelatory treatment, it did its part to keep my interest. So that's what worked for me; here's what didn't.
You know those people who boast, "Ha! I figured out that Character X was a ghost / a man / a sled by the end of the first reel!"? I'm not normally one of those people — I'm the sort who just follows along and lets plot developments unfold when they unfold, without trying to predict what's going to happen. But the big twist ending here was obvious from the moment all the characters had been introduced, even to me. It has been suggested to me that perhaps the author meant it to be obvious, in order that the reader have knowledge that the characters don't — the problem is, I generally hate that trick. If the knowledge the characters are missing is a secret, I want the secret to be blurted out as soon as humanly possible; if the knowledge they're missing is a deduction of some sort, I want them to deduce it the moment I have. It's immensely frustrating not to be able to shake characters by the shoulders and tell them the things they need to know, so I found myself racing to the revelations so that we'd all finally be on the same page, as it were.
Another thing I noticed (and since this book was a gift from someone who thought it had relevance to IF, here's an observation IF writers might want to keep in mind) is that in trying to convey a clear picture of the garden to the readers — and the garden is in many respects the star of the show, so this would seem to be important — the author indulges in a number of longish descriptive passages. "There was a clipped box bush by the greenhouse, with a cavity like a great mouth cut into the side of it: this was stacked full of pots of geraniums in flower. Along the sundial path, heavy red poppies came out, and roses; and, in summer dusk, the evening primroses glimmered like little moons." And so on in that vein for a while. The thing is, my botanical ignorance aside ("yew tree" means nothing to me — I know palms and I know eucalyptus and that's about it), descriptive passages don't put pictures in my head. This isn't to say that I don't visualize as I read; I know exactly what Holden Caulfield looks like, though it's probably nothing like JD Salinger's image of him. Narrative description, at least for me, is not a matter of cataloguing details; it's about finding a phrase or three that somehow evokes the whole picture.
Last night after I finished the book I found that for some reason I had "Stairway to Heaven" stuck in my head, so I dusted off my copy of Led Zeppelin IV and gave it a spin. Now that was evocative — suddenly it was 1988 again and I was on a stuffy OCTD bus with the sun beating in through my dirt-encrusted window, exhausted from ten hours at school and falling asleep with my headphones on, waking up sticky with sweat just as the bus pulled up to the Mall of Orange stop. Then I put in Liz Phair's latest and dialed up "White Chocolate Space Egg," and suddenly it was 7am on a misty morning in Orange County, and I was driving down a side street past clutches of teal-clad twelve-year-olds and into the parking lot of Santiago Charter Middle School, opening the car door and emerging into a cool breeze threading its way through curiously thin air. This was direct, sensory experience — so much of the feeling of a place has to do with the precise wavelength of the sunlight, the barometric pressure, the admixture of scents without names, and no catalog of details could ever manage to make you feel what I was reliving. But a few chords from Jimmy Page or Jason Chasko could pull the trick on me. Words can describe without evoking; they can also evoke without describing — evoke different things for different people, but evoke nonetheless — and therein lies some of the trickiest magic a writer can attempt.
1Since I wrote this, more than one person has pointed out to me that "garden" has a different connotation in the UK than in the US: an English garden is a sort of small walled-in park, not a plot for flowers and vegetables. Yeah, I know — I've read the book, after all, and seen what the garden in question is like. That's sort of my point: I was suggesting that one reason for the different reception the book has received on different sides of the Atlantic might be that the key word, "garden," has a different connotation here than there. By the same token, the closest American equivalent I could think of, "backyard," apparently connotes a little strip of pavement with some trash cans on it in the UK.