Thursday, July 22, 2010

Review: The China Garden

Reading Liz Berry's novel The China Garden was a pleasant visit to 12-year-old me's taste in books. I loved fantasy novels set in modern times (preferably in Britain) but full of mythology and literature. I wrote them, too, or attempted to do so. The China Garden is exactly this kind of book, though it doesn't suffer for being something I used to read. It's a genre I still enjoy.

Clare Meredith is a 17-year-old Londoner, just finished with her A-levels, when her mother announces she's moving to an old estate in Somerset, called Ravensmere, to take care of an old man. Clare insists on coming along, though she isn't sure why she wants to. She soon discovers that she is totally unaware of much of her mother's past, and when she gets to Ravensmere everyone seems to know who she is before they're told. There's a locked up Chinese garden, a missing maze, and a cat whose name Clare knows instinctively. Obviously, everyone knows something she doesn't, and it's something about her. Naturally, she's going to find out.

The book was catalogued in the normal fiction section, but I think it ought to have been in young adult fiction. It's written in that style common to a lot of young adult fiction, with slightly vague description, and plot that would have been spread (to advantage) throughout twice the pages in an adult novel. The beginning of the novel, which takes place in London, sort of felt like it had been written by someone who'd never been there--you couldn't feel the London-ness of it. Ravensmere was a bit better, since it's an invented place (and they had a map), but description remained sort of unevocative, though I had no trouble actually picturing things if I thought about it. Still, the writing was serviceable, and this kind of story is driven by the plot anyway. The characters had very satisfactory arcs, and the clues to the mystery of Ravensmere were well-laid. I knew when things were going to be relevant, but I never figured anything much out before the characters. I loved reading all the dashes of history and invented history, and the fantasy crept in gradually and unobtrusively. This is a very good summer book, and one definitely needs some fantasy once in a while.

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