Behind a villa in the heart of Tuscany lies a Renaissance garden of enchanting beauty. Its grottoes, pagan statues and classical inscriptions seem to have a secret life of their own – and a secret message, too, for those with eyes to read it.
Young scholar Adam Strickland is just such a person. Arriving in 1958, he finds the Docci family, their house and the unique garden as seductive as each other. But post-War Italy is still a strange, even dangerous place, and the Doccis have some dark skeletons hidden away which Adam finds himself compelled to investigate.
Before this mysterious and beautiful summer ends, Adam will uncover two stories of love, revenge and murder, separated by 400 years… but is another tragedy about to be added to the villa’s cursed past?
Having read Mark Mills’ The Information Officer for Book Club and having heard that this was better I thought I’d give it a try, and I have found it gripping! It has been one of those books where you sneak off for five minutes just to read a bit more.
Adam Strickland is looking for a thesis subject and one of his tutors sends him off to Italy to research a memorial garden. The garden has never been examined like this before and is full of statues, layers and mysteries. Adam is soon under its spell but as the garden begins to reveal itself to him he begins to find it is hiding more than he bargained for. On top of this the Docci family who own the garden and Villa to which it belongs begin to toss up a few mysteries of their own. As Adam gets more intrigued he becomes more and more enmeshed in what could be a very dangerous situation.
Set in Italy in 1958 the backdrop for the story is beautiful and often pivotal to the plot as the countryside and Florentine Art speak to Adam. But even more interesting was the way in which Mark Mills used other stories to inform his own narrative. Adam finds that Dante’s Inferno seems to have special significance and hunts through Dante’s work for clues to the gardens secrets. As he discovers the memorial garden is put there to commemorate a murder, not just a death, he is desperately searching for clues as to what happened, and of course who did it. It is not often that someone might be on the verge of resolving a 400 year old crime but this is so intelligently written that it is very plausible.
Alongside this is the puzzle of the Docci’s. The top floor of the Villa is sealed off following the death of the oldest son at the end of the war in tragic circumstances. Adam realises the very people he is working for have hidden depths and secrets and he can’t leave it alone! The unfolding of the events in the present day is what brings the air of menace and the feeling of danger to the story. Although for me I wasn’t scared by it, I did really want to know what had happened and how it would all turn out. This feeling was increased by the interesting characters, they are very believable with many sides. There is always more being revealed about the people, not just about the mystery.
On top of all of this, the plot twists and turns cleverly, building up to a myriad of them in the last quarter of the tale and, it has to be said that, many of them I just didn’t see coming. As you journey with Adam and see through his eyes this means that despite his brilliance in figuring out many things he doesn’t work it all out either. I really liked the flawedness of him as a character. I also liked his brother Harry who added a little light relief and the enigmatic Signora Docci who always keeps you guessing.
Verdict: So overall, the great use of myth, history and older writings combined with great characters, a little romance and a little humour come together to create a complex, multi-layered crime novel with a difference.
Reviewed by Helen