Friday 22 July 2022

Small Eden by Jane Davis

Reviewer's Choice


"A boy with his head in the clouds. A man with a head full of dreams.
1884. The symptoms of scarlet fever are easily mistaken for teething, as Robert Cooke and his pregnant wife Freya discover at the cost of their two infant sons. Freya immediately isolates for the safety of their unborn child. Cut off from each other, there is no opportunity for husband and wife to teach each other the language of their loss. By the time they meet again, the subject is taboo. But unspoken grief is a dangerous enemy. It bides its time.
A decade later and now a successful businessman, Robert decides to create a pleasure garden in memory of his sons, in the very same place he found refuge as a boy – a disused chalk quarry in Surrey’s Carshalton. But instead of sharing his vision with his wife, he widens the gulf between them by keeping her in the dark. It is another woman who translates his dreams. An obscure yet talented artist called Florence Hoddy, who lives alone with her unmarried brother, painting only what she sees from her window…"

This is a powerful story of Victorian England, a melange of repressed feelings, hidden secrets and understated emotions, and a portrait of a family slowly dissolving in grief. 

Inspired by the unbearable loss of his two boys, Robert Cooke builds the pleasure garden of his dreams – his Small Eden. The enterprise is supported by the Reynolds family: Frank, his wife, and their two boys, John and Gerrard.

Robert comes across as a solid, almost saintly figure; Freya, his wife, a shadowy individual driven by societal norms and conventions, harbours a deep resentment toward her husband whom she blames for the deaths of their two sons. Their daughters, Estelle and Ida, are like chalk and cheese. Estelle is implacably cold towards her father, mirroring her mother’s feelings, while Ida delights in his company and everything he does.

When Miss Hoddy, a disabled artist with uncanny social skills, enters their lives, she lights up everyone’s life, but plants the seed of an unjustified jealousy in Freya’s heart. What is remarkable about the Cooke family is that they can function at all. And they do – until the money runs out. 

Ms Davis has a remarkable talent that reminds me of Alice Munro. The way she burrows into the minds of her characters and exposes their moods by picking out their smallest observations is effortless and masterful. I can’t wait to read some more by this wonderful writer.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© J J Toner
 e-version reviewed

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for featuring Small Eden. It's not every day you find yourself compared to a Nobel prize winner!


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