Trying, but failing, to put oomph into cosy, feel-good story about contested garden

Sara Nisha Adams's attempt to repeat the success of her first novel falls flat

10 October 2023 - 11:02 By Margaret von Klemperer
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'The Twilight Garden' by Sara Nisha Adams.
'The Twilight Garden' by Sara Nisha Adams.
Image: Supplied

The Twilight Garden
Sara Nisha Adams
Harper Collins    

Sara Nisha Adams had success with her first novel, the gentle, feel-good The Reading List. She attempts to repeat the formula with this tale of a garden in a London suburb, shared between two houses, and at the opening of the book, neglected, overgrown and a bone of contention between the neighbours who live in the semi-detached dwellings.

Winston, at No 77, has given up his job in banking and works at the local corner shop while he lives, a little uneasily, with his more ambitious and successful partner Lewis. Next door, at No 79, is recently divorced Bernice and her young son, Sebastian. Bernice and Winston are like oil and water — thoroughly incompatible.

Parallel to this contemporary story is that of earlier neighbours in the same properties in the 1980s, the heyday of the garden, when it was a focal point for the whole community. Maya, Prem and their daughter Hiral lived in No 77 and Alma, caustic, but with a somewhat cliched heart of gold, in No 79. Each of the four sections of the novel, one for each season of the year, is prefaced by a letter from Maya.

Winston, floundering in depression, receives envelopes through his letter box showing cuttings and photographs of the garden in earlier times. At first he ignores them, but slowly his interest is kindled and he begins to see the garden through different eyes. But Bernice is less enthusiastic, though Sebastian is keen to join in. And as more is revealed about their backstories, Bernice and Winston start to see the possibilities and potential of their uncomfortably shared space. Could it possibly be restored and again create a sense of community in the area?

It makes for a cosy, easy read, but there are major problems. Tensions, in the early garden days and the present, are too easily resolved, making the plot a little dull. Everyone, even with their flaws, is just too nice to be a compelling character and while Alma and Maya’s story is more involving than that of Winston and Bernice, even this is all too comfortable and bordering on the sentimental. Loose ends get neatly tied up, tragedy when it strikes is alleviated by kindness and blandness, and while the characters do grow and develop, the reader is left feeling most of them would have been the better of a good shaking. Even the cosy and feel-good needs a bit of oomph.

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