In The Garden Of The Fugitives…
About the Book:
Almost twenty years after forbidding him to contact her, Vita receives an email from her old benefactor, Royce. Once, she was one of his brightest protégées; now her career has stalled and Royce is ailing, and each has a need to settle accounts.
Beyond their murky shared history, both have lost beloveds, one to an untimely death, another to a strange disappearance. And both are trying to free themselves from deeper pasts, Vita from the inheritance of her birthplace, Royce from the grip of the ancient city of Pompeii and the secrets of the Garden of the Fugitives. Between what’s been repressed and what has been excavated are disturbances that reach back through decades, even centuries.
Addictive and unsettling, In the Garden of the Fugitives is a masterpiece of duplicity and counterplay, as brilliantly illuminating as it is surprising – about the obscure workings of guilt in the human psyche, the compulsion to create, and the dangerous morphing of desire into control. It is the breakthrough work of one of Australia’s most exciting emerging writers.
In The Garden Of The Fugitives is such an absorbing novel, it borders on addictive. Stylised as an exchange of correspondence between two people who have been estranged for twenty years, the entire is novel is a back and forth between Royce and Vita, a confessional for them both, although they each embark upon it for different reasons.
The voyeurism attached to the exchange, the nature of confession, where it begins with an agenda but moves into a cathartic response, was utterly absorbing. It was almost like a cat and mouse game, pens poised for retaliation but the draw of turning the focus back onto yourself, with an open audience, proved too tantalising to resist, so the accusations were thus implied, but kept to a minimum. What unfolds, after Royce’s initial letter requesting Vita indulge him in his deathbed confession via email, is two incredible stories, linked only by the depth of guilt each person clings to, and a mutual tendency for obsessive behaviour.
Through Royce’s confession, we learn about Pompeii from an anthropological perspective, and through Vita’s perspective, we learn about South Africa post apartheid. From both, we learn about guilt, its manifestation and destructive qualities, both on the individual and on those surrounding them. The examination of human nature is so precise; I’ve rarely encountered such intuition within a novel.
The history of Pompeii, both prior to its destruction and all of the discoveries about life within that has been uncovered since, was fascinating to explore. It’s incredibly mind bending to think of entire civilisations preserved beneath the earth. And to think, over time, how much has been lost on account of plundering and ill-advised excavations. Pompeii itself seems alluring on so many levels and I will admit to not knowing very much about it at all, with exception of the obvious. The effect that Pompeii had on those working on uncovering its secrets was well wrought, and for Royce – whose only attachment to the place was his obsession with Kitty, an anthropologist aiming to make Pompeii her life’s work – I was struck by how much the place got under his skin as well. I felt a deep sadness for Royce, the origin of his guilt, manifesting itself into his obsession with Kitty, and much later, with Vita. He was not quite the demon Vita liked to paint him as.
South Africa post apartheid gave me much to ponder on. I have met many South Africans in recent years, my hometown being a first point of settlement for immigrants. Conversations about South Africa have often shocked me, some going so far as to rage about Mandela and how he ‘ruined their country.’ But I see now, from reading Vita’s story, that this is not widespread. Perhaps those who have left have done so for one reason, while those who stay, do so for another. Indeed, I remember speaking with an older woman who mourned the fact that her son had not immigrated with them because he loved the new South Africa. Such a complicated history. The widespread guilt about being a white South African was utterly captivating to examine. The parallels drawn against the guilt experienced post Nazism within Germany was expertly applied. While Vita frustrated me in so many ways, I clearly understood her, what was preventing her from settling and why she couldn’t let go of the past. She was a floater, existing within but never fully engaging with her life. The ending makes me think this was not going to change for her, a realistic portrayal of those with the type of psychological burdens she was plagued with.
“Every human on earth has inherited privilege and inherited pain.”
Such insight into human nature is prevalent within the pages of this novel. This observation is particularly notable:
“Those who are considered to be good with people are also often depleted by people. Even a simple conversation can leave me feeling sucked out, bone-dry. Animals and plants ask for nothing in return, but humans take until you have nothing left to give.”
I love the truth in this.
In The Garden Of The Fugitives is a novel about guilt, the benefit of hindsight, and the powerful allure of confession. The research that has gone into this novel is evident, there is so much to dive into and explore. I have noted after finishing that Ceridwen is Australian-South African, and that comes as no surprise, for the knowledge imparted about living in South Africa, the sociological as well as the psychological, seemed empirical in its delivery. This novel really is addictive, so clear your schedule because you will not want to put it down once you begin reading. One to watch for next year’s Stella Prize longlist, I hopefully predict.
Thanks is extended to Penguin Random House Australia for providing me with a copy of In The Garden Of The Fugitives for review.
About the Author:
Ceridwen Dovey’s debut novel, Blood Kin, was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Award and selected for the US National Book Foundation’s prestigious ‘5 Under 35’ honours list. Her short story collection, Only the Animals, won the Readings New Australian Writing Award. She writes non-fiction for various publications, including newyorker.com and The Monthly, and lives in Sydney with her husband and two sons.