I’m truly sorry not to have managed writing this review earlier (I read the book in July), because this book is quite a gem, one of the best I’ve read this year in non-crime fiction. Yet it took me ages to come up with a review, because I didn’t know where to start – and I wouldn’t want to do a disservice to it.
It’s one delicately woven piece of craftsmanship, whose title is exemplary for the whole book: metaphorical, subtle and quiet. Don’t expect a story about gardens or a story set in Japan. The novel is set in immediate post-war America, dealing with the women left behind and the men who came back (or not) from the front. But don’t expect anything in-your-face or tearful either.
The Gardens of Kyoto is the title of a book that Randall leaves as bequest to his teenaged cousin Helen, feeling rightly that he wouldn’t come back from Okinawa in 1945. Helen and Randall had a very special relationship, and Randall’s ghost will shape Helen’s entire adult life. How the book came into Randall’s hands is another story, but the meaning of it goes well beyond the object and the bond it creates between Helen and Randall.
Readers learn that one particular garden in Kyoto has been designed so that visitors are never allowed to embrace the whole view of the garden in one look: one perspective at least always remains hidden, no matter where you place yourself. And obviously this is Walbert’s ambition to replicate this in her novel.
The plot is made of many layers and loops, so that many flashes of memories drive us back to events that we have already witnessed but each time our knowledge of the characters and circumstances add a new meaning or a new emotion to our previous comprehension.
It’s really impressive how Walbert achieves the right mix to convey emotion without veering off toward a tear-jerker – much is repressed and left unsaid. Real tragedies happen in the background, like the stupid death of Randall right after the end of the war, or Helen’s sister death from domestic violence, but they resonate for years in those who have survived the loss without having really let go of the grief.
While set long before the 1960s, it made me think of the TV series Mad Men (I’ve only watched season 1), because characters are aloof and subdued. Likewise, they have to put up with very conservative social conventions without any real rebellion. Women pay a high price if they try to break free from conventions and silence.
I first heard of Kate Walbert through a New Yorker short story of hers I’d read ages ago. Somehow I never forgot about it, and I probably won’t forget The Gardens either. Now I’m all set to read other novels by her. Any recommendation?