Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Memories of A Tuscan Cooking Holiday Are Stirred By The Savage Garden

What do you do when you are suffering withdrawal symptoms after returning from a Flavours painting class? You find a book that will transport you back to your spiritual home!

The heart of Tuscany in 1958 is the backdrop to ‘The Savage Garden’ by Mark Mills and anyone who enjoys intrigue and puzzles spattered with blood and art history will find this murder mystery suited to their taste.

I was hooked as I looked at the back jacket: ‘Behind a Tuscan villa lies a Renaissance garden of enchanting beauty. Within the grottoes, pagan statues and all the classic inscriptions there is a secret message.’ Yes, OK memories of Dan Brown, but we are talking Tuscany here, so what’s not to like?

Who can resist a thriller with the strapline: ‘Uncover stories of love, revenge and murder, separated by 400 years?’ Go on, you know you want to!

A Richard and Judy recommendation, this book has garnered some spectacular reviews from all kinds of readers and I was certainly gripped by that palpable sense of loss and yearning which surfaced.

I also developed empathy with the main character, Adam, who learns so much more about himself as he dons the role of amateur sleuth. The delicate balance of exploration and slight depression gives this narrative a subtle edge.

The time frame juxtaposed with the 16th century was also enjoyable. Adam Strickland, slightly disaffected art history student is offered a thesis outline and the money to pursue it. One cannot even begin to think of such a thing happening in today’s climate! Yet suspending disbelief Adam travels to Tuscany as a guest of his university mentor’s enigmatic friend, Francesca Docci (oh for a name like this!)

In the Tuscan hills Adam must study the Renaissance garden constructed by an eminent banker from Florence, who builds the garden as a paean to his wife who died aged 25 during 1548.

With accurate and appropriate research the reader is given specific details of gardens of renown: Boboli and Bomarzo as two examples. There is a wealth of Renaissance art works and examples of 16th century garden design included which lend this novel a scholarly air.

I was fascinated by the spell woven through the leafy grottoes and wooded, shady bowers. We all understand how significant the metaphor of a garden is in literature. Read the bible, Chaucer or Austen to see how garden walls can protect, repress or suggest possibilities just over the perimeter; Mansfield Park makes humorous use of this device.

Our hero realises the discordant elements within this paradise: what, for example is the provocative statue of the young wife really doing? What indeed! Will writers from the past be able to solve the mystery of what really is being communicated in this sad place?

Of course the secrets unearthed are shocking but there is something much more subtle at work and Mills handles the aestheticism of this novel beautifully. Alongside the garden is a suspicious contemporary death and everyone offers a different opinion as to what happened. The whole novel reminded me of Browning’s poem, ‘My Last Duchess’.

As a well-worked treatise on 16th century garden design combined with classical scholarship this picaresque novel is ‘full of mysteries and menace’ and just as captivating as the Times stated in a review.

If you need a reminder of your Flavours Tuscan cooking holiday during the long autumn evenings, this crime thriller may well do the trick as you count down the days to your next gastronomic sojourn. I find a glass of Chianti and a quick flick through the Flavours 2013 brochure works wonders too!

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