I remember hearing a lot about Deborah Lawrenson’s The Lantern a few years ago but never found time to read it, so I was pleased to have the opportunity to read her latest book, The Sea Garden. This book consists of not just one story, but three, each taking up approximately one third of the book and introducing us to three very different women. The stories are loosely connected but each has a different setting and a different feel.
The first of the three stories (you could probably call them novellas) is also titled The Sea Garden. It’s 2013 and Ellie Brooke, a landscape garden designer, is visiting Porquerolles, a small island off the coast of France where she has agreed to restore a memorial garden for a client, Laurent de Fayols. However, she is unprepared for both the hostile welcome she receives from Laurent’s elderly mother and for the supernatural experiences that happen to her while on the island. Ellie’s story then comes to an abrupt end and another begins…
The Lavender Field takes us back to Nazi-occupied France in 1944 and a small community of people working for the French Resistance. Marthe Lincel, a young blind woman, is an apprentice at the Distillerie Musset in Provence. Her work involves creating fragrances and perfumed soaps, but as the war progresses she turns her skills to helping Allied soldiers. There are the beginnings of a dramatic and romantic wartime story here, but again we come to the end too soon…
The third and final story is A Shadow Life, the story of Iris Nightingale, who is working for British Intelligence in 1943, gathering information and recruiting spies to be sent into occupied France. Iris grows close to one of the agents, Xavier Descours, but his work is secretive and dangerous and this is not a good time to be falling in love. As the book draws near to its conclusion, we finally begin to see some connections between Ellie, Marthe and Iris and the men in their lives.
This is a beautifully written book, set in a time period I love to read about (World War II). There are some lovely descriptions of Provence with its lavender fields and also of the island of Porquerolles, a place I previously knew nothing about. The Porquerolles story has some ghostly/supernatural elements and I was impressed with the way the author creates such an eerie atmosphere in what should be a peaceful, idyllic setting. I also enjoyed learning about the work Iris carries out for the SOE (Special Operations Executive); it was fascinating to see the level of secrecy that was required when going undercover in France!
My problem with this book was the structure. Keeping the three stories separate just didn’t work for me as well as a more traditional multiple time period novel would have done. While there were definitely some links between the three, most of these didn’t become obvious until very near the end of the book. When things did start to come together the result was fascinating, but it happened too late and I’m sure I would have been happier if the three stories had been woven together from the beginning to form one cohesive novel.
Marthe’s section in particular felt very disconnected from the other two – yes, there was some character overlap, but I’m not convinced that such a large chunk of the book needed to be devoted to Marthe’s story. The third story – the one with Iris and the secret agents – was the one I found most compelling, possibly because it’s the only one that felt like a complete story and brought in elements from the other two. At the end, though, there were still some questions left unanswered and if I had enjoyed the book more, I would have taken the time to go back and search the earlier sections to see if there were any clues I had missed.
I received a copy of The Sea Garden for review via NetGalley