The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier, (Amulet Books), 368 pages
Jonathan Auxier’s The Night Gardener is an absolute delight—one of those “children’s books” that can just as readily pull adults into its magical world. I started it one night, read until I was exhausted, then picked it up again the next morning because I couldn’t wait to get back to that magical world.
This tale was inspired, the author tell us, by Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and the stories of Washington Irving, among other texts, but it is much more than a new twist on previously published works. One can see moments where these inspirations shine through clearly, but The Night Gardener remains its own creature throughout: moody, sometimes deeply unsettling, populated by a cast of characters one quickly grows fond of.
The novel is set in the Victorian era, and the cast include young Molly and Kip, who may or may not be orphans, making their way to a mysterious manner house in hopes of gaining work as servants; the failing, fading family who make this mansion their home; a story-telling crone; and a self-satisfied rationalist doctor, alert for any opportunity to receive scientific fame.
In addition to the human characters, we also have the Night Gardener of the title and the overgrown, menacing tree he tends and that grows not just outside, but throughout the home, shaping the lives of all who spend time there.
This is one of those novels that meets expectations, but never disappoints by doing so. Our young heroes summon bravery in difficult straits. The threatened family’s love is dissipating, but emerges still at crucial moments. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, the good end happily and the bad end unhappily; that is what fiction means. Just as Harry Potter’s expected defeat of Voldemort does nothing to lesson the pleasure of reading J. K. Rowling’s series, the fact that our young heroes end (mostly) happily does nothing to dilute the pleasures of The Night Gardener. The fact that Auxier is a wonderful prose stylist doesn’t hurt, either.
Whether you live in a home with children or without them, this is a wonderful book to keep on the shelves for those moments when one needs to sink into the company of literary “friends” and to allow the cares of day-to-day life to fade into the distance. After you’ve read this book once, you’ll look forward to returning to it again.