Cornwall, 1900 – Eliza has been living in abject poverty, hidden in the attic with her brother. Her brother makes money cleaning chimneys. Eliza cleans and launders clothing that Mrs. Swindell brings in, for money. Mrs. Swindell strains the broth that they eat before feeding them. No reason to waste meat on children such as them. Their mother recently died, but before she did, she warned Eliza and Sammy to always be careful, always watch out for the bad man, the bad man who is searching for them.
London, 1913 – A 4 or 5 year old girl hides in the dark, just as she has been told. She’s waiting for the lady to return, to take her to see her parents. She knows she must not tell anyone her name, and that she must wait, and that she’s on a ship destined for America, but nothing more.
Brisbane, 1930 – Nell’s 21st birthday, not long after the death of her beloved mother. Her father believes it is best to tell her the truth, that he found her aboard a ship 17 years ago, and that their attempts to find her family had failed, so they raised her as their own. He tells her that he loves her as if she were his own. He doesn’t tell her that in fact, she is his favorite of his three children, the most precious and beloved of his three precious and beloved daughters. It doesn’t matter, and the revelation sends Nell into a tailspin, wondering who she really is, why she was on a ship alone, how she came to be there. She has distant memories, trying to surface, that she needs to unravel.
Brisbane, 1975 – Nell is trying to figure out her past, and how she came to be deserted on a ship that sailed from London to Brisbane, all of those years before. She’s been to England, thinks she’s on the verge of discovering something, and has decided to return, perhaps to stay. Along comes her daughter, Lesley, with her own daughter in tow. Lesley wants to concentrate her attentions on her latest boyfriend, and her daughter, Cassandra, will be in the way. So she drops Cassandra off with Nell.
Brisbane, 2005 – Cassandra sits with her dying grandmother, trying to keep her grounded amongst her confusion, and to keep her loving company while she faces the next world after this one. After her grandmother’s death, Cassandra discovers that she has inherited a tiny cottage in London, once part of a grand estate.
How these stories toss and turn and mesh together, that is the mystery of Kate Morton’s novel, The Forgotten Garden. Morton weaves her tale by traveling back and forth through time and distance, visiting each of these several characters in their turns, slowly bringing the story together. And interspersed with the narrative are fairy tales from a very rare collection of stories, a book that was illustrated by a famous portrait artist in the early part of the 1900s. A book that was hidden in the little white suitcase, carried by a 4 year old stowaway.
I found this story to be engrossing, and immediately was pulled into the story, wanting to know more about the characters. Sometimes in a book such as this one, when there are many stories to be told, you find yourself rushing through some sections to get to the next, the one that is really engaging. Not so with The Forgotten Garden, where I was equally transfixed by all of the stories, and how they would come together. There were times when I thought I had the mystery all figured out, only to discover that I was wrong, there was something else entirely going on. That was mostly a relief, I hate when I’m halfway into a 600 page story and I think I’ve got it figured out already.