Literary and obscurely poetic, Brian Castro’s meditation on loneliness, addiction, abuse and racism is a perverse and unappealing narrative.
Broken into four sections with events seen from the perspective of four people, The Garden Book is the story of poet Shuang He (Swan Hay) and her sad, isolated life in the shadows of the Dandenong Hills on the outskirts of Melbourne between the wars.
Darcy Damon (section one), her husband, is a good-looking opium addict: Swan Hay herself is a third generation Chinese-Australian and university graduate: Jasper Zhalin (section three) an American architect/pilot and lover of Swan: and finally Shih, their son, looking back at events and attempting to piece together the story some 50 years later.
It’s a frustrating read. Castro has created several captivating characters, allowing him to touch upon fascinating themes that are as relevant today as they were then. The often hidden history of the Chinese in Australia and the racism simmering below the surface of everyday life is exposed – not just towards Swan and her father, but also her Jewish friend, Ruth Black. But Castro’s language, whilst rich and archly beautiful, is impenetrable and exacting in its telling of a narrative.
A progressively angry and violent Damon, former chauffeur to the notorious local gangster, Squizzy Taylor, becomes increasingly remote as he builds a large house to cater for the burgeoning tourism of the local area. Swan, writing poetry on gum leaves, slips between sanity, depression and addiction (opium and/or alcohol), made worse by the cot death of their daughter. As war inches closer and Damon spends more and more time absent from the property as a reservist, into the narrative walks Jasper Zenlin. Charming, wealthy and sophisticated, he loves Swan and her poetry, eventually having the work published by an obscure printing house in Paris on the eve of the war. Swan is a sensation – but never knows it until post-war.
Victim of malicious gossip and accusations, Swan lives intensely and painfully in her mordant solitude. She loses all – Damon, her father, Jasper, her children, even, ultimately, herself.
As a précis, with more verve and action (plane crashes, opium-fuelled orgies, bigamy, spies), The Garden Book sounds like a regular literary thriller. But it falls into an academic exercise, an emotionless gymkhana of poetic verbosity. By the end, I hated it.
The Garden Book was shortlisted for the 2006 Miles Franklin Award but lost out to Roger McDonald and The Ballad of Desmond Kale.