Review

The Savage Garden

by Mark Mills

Cambridge University Professor Crispin Leonard has waited a
long time to find just the right student for a sensitive task. An
old friend, Signora Docci, has asked him to be on the lookout for
someone to unravel the symbolism of the grounds surrounding her
family villa a short distance from the tiny Tuscan hill town of San
Casciano. After careful consideration, Professor Leonard chooses
senior Adam Strickland and sends him off on a discovery mission.
The centuries-old garden has rested quietly until Adam arrives to
study it for his thesis. He immerses himself in the tangle of
vegetation, but finds that the manor house intrigues him almost as
much as the garden. Adam has heard the stories and knows that
something tragic occurred there during the Second World War, some
14 years previous to his arrival, resulting in the third floor of
the villa being sealed and declared off limits.

Almost instantly, Villa Docci's matriarch, the elderly Francesca
Docci, warms to Adam, eager to hear what insights he unearths. As
Adam wanders the garden, more questions than answers arise. The
statues seem oddly placed. Even their expressions are a bit off.
Adam's research leads him to the belief that this is not the work
of a bad landscape architect. Rather, the garden is precisely as
designed. But why? And the matter of the closed-off floor of the
villa? The explanation Adam has heard involved the death of Signora
Docci's eldest son at the hands of occupying German soldiers. A
tragedy, yes, but is it reasonable to close off that part of the
house forever?

Adam had planned only a few weeks to complete his work in Italy,
but he finds himself enchanted by Antonella, Francesca's
granddaughter. Then Harry, Adam's rogue brother, announces that he
will drop in for a short stay. Although he loves his brother, Adam
dreads a visit from Harry, for Harry usually means trouble --- and
always means diminishing Adam's funds. But while Harry provides a
somewhat pleasant diversion, he also points Adam toward a
surprising revelation and lightens the mood around the villa,
giving the Doccis an easy excuse to host lavish celebratory
dinners. And Antonella provides an even more pleasant
diversion.

As for the garden, Adam thinks he understands what its designer's
message was. When he turns to the mystery of the house, all the
signs point to a horror that he wishes he could forget. Of course,
he can't. He continues on the trail of clues, naively oblivious to
the dangers he faces. If the death on the third floor was not at
the hands of the Germans, as he'd been told, then the murderer may
get edgy if Adam comes too close to the truth. When he realizes his
room has been rifled and he has picked up a trail, he knows he is
on to something. But will he live to find the truth?

While Mark Mills has intertwined history with a marvelous puzzle,
that's not the best part about THE SAVAGE GARDEN. The best part is
the joy of losing oneself to the beauty of the Tuscan countryside
in the late 1950s and relishing a less frenetic era through the
eyes of a clever young man. Better yet, the startling conclusion
leads to a highly satisfying ending. One always wants justice to be
served. Here, it is --- well served.

Reviewed by Kate Ayers on January 23, 2011

The Savage Garden
by Mark Mills

  • Publication Date: May 6, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley Trade
  • ISBN-10: 0425221296
  • ISBN-13: 9780425221297