The Night Gardener - Jonathan Auxier

The calendar said early March, but the smell in the air said late October. A crisp sun shone over Cellar Hollow, melting the final bits of ice from the bare trees. Steam rose from the soil like a phantom, carrying with it a whisper of autumn smoke that had been lying dormant in the frosty underground. Squinting through the trees, you could just make out the winding path that ran from the village all the way to the woods in the south. People seldom traveled in that direction, but on this March-morning-that-felt-like-October, a horse and cart rattled down the road. It was a fish cart with a broken back wheel and no fish. Riding atop the bench were two children, a girl and a boy, both with striking red hair. The girl was named Molly, and the boy, her brother, was Kip.

And they were riding to their deaths.

I've known people to distinguish between literary fiction and children's fiction, but I dare anyone to read Auxier's The Night Gardener and tell me that the book is not literary (just look at that opening paragraph: phantom steam, autumn smoke, and the claustrophobic feeling of the early morning forest shrouded in fog...)! As Elizabeth Bird noted in her own recent review of The Night Gardener, "It is almost as if Mr. Auxier took his whimsy [from Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes], pulled out a long sharp stick, and stabbed it repeatedly in the heart and left it to die in the snow so as to give us a sublimely horrific little novel." I mean, how can I top a statement like that?!

Molly and Kip are in a bad way, their parents are gone, they have no money, and they desperately need work and a place to stay, especially since Kip is suffering with a deformed leg. Molly has managed to find what she hopes will be a full-time job, but it requires a trip into the middle of nowhere, on a small island, in a creepy manor, where there is a constant feeling of being followed. But other than that, the opportunity seems perfect! There is a strange feeling that although one wants Molly to have this job, there is a terrible feeling that the children will find themselves in a frightening situation.

Kip sat on the floor to remove his boots and trousers. "I ain't foolin'. I was out at the stables, waitin' for your sign at the window. All of a sudden this wind comes and it gets real dark—no moon, no stars. That's when I seen your light, so I set to walkin' over here. I'm halways to the house when the hairs on my neck stand straight up. It was like I could feel it, Molls, right behind me. I turned around and there, in the fog..."
Another facet of the story that makes this book stand out, is the use of lies versus truth-telling. Molly has the ability to make people believe things that are not true. Essentially, she can tell a lie that will benefit her and her brother in the end, but at what cost? The very idea that lies may be more convincing than the truth undermines Auxier's own storytelling, leaving his readers unsure how much of the book is truth and how much is a lie, at least within the world of the text.
Both lies and stories involved saying things that weren't true, but somehow the lies inside stories felt true.
Auxier's writing is skillful and, as I said before, creepy and urgent, bringing the landscape to life as its own character amidst the already rich cast:
The forest shook and shuddered as wind sliced through branches and bushes. Kip stumbled blindly over the rough ground, shielding his face with one arm. Branches clawed at his clothes and hair. He could her the night man behind him, getting closer and closer...
The twists and turns within the narrative will leave readers searching for answers until the very end. Taking many cues from Ray Bradbury, Washington Irving, and Frances Hodgson Burnett, Auxier weaves a tale that will raise the hairs on the back of your head until you find yourself looking behind you everywhere you go. Deliciously sinister, this is a book you won't want to miss.

(Is it possible to go higher than) Highly Recommended


(Note: This review is from an Advanced Reading Copy - Out May 20, 2014)

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