The Crow Garden. Book Review

The Crow Garden by Alison Littlewood
Jo Fletcher Books, h/b, 384pp, £16.99
Reviewed by Charlotte Bond

It seems that with every novel put out, Littlewood refines her art that little bit more. The Crow Garden owes much to her previous novel, The Hidden People. Both have an archaic style of writing but whereas passages of The Hidden People are cumbersome to read, The Crow Garden flows smoothly, mixing atmosphere and language with effective precision.

The story follows Nathaniel Kerner, a recently graduated doctor who is looking to build his career and erase the professional stigma that surrounds his father. The only physician to take him on is Dr Chettle, who runs an asylum in Yorkshire. Nathaniel’s first patient is Mrs Vita Harleson, and while he sees her as the making of his name, she turns out instead to threaten everything he has worked so hard for.

As with The Hidden People, this novel is told from the point of view of a man, and yet it is a subtle and evocative story about women. What Littlewood masters here is having a man tell the story of the women around him without him actually realising what he’s doing. Dramatic irony is employed to perfection.

We start with Nathaniel Kerner arriving at Crakethorne Manor. He is full of hope and aspirations, but he’s arriving in a bleak place in September. The very atmosphere of the place could suck the health and beauty from anything, given enough time. Littlewood’s description of Crakethorne Manor itself is so vivid you can easily picture it in your mind’s eye. Given the author’s residence in Yorkshire, it did lead me to wonder if it was based on a real place. Even if it is based on reality, Littlewood’s way with words turns Crakethorne Manor from a mere setting into a character itself – by which I mean an inanimate object and its surrounding landscape that effects and reflects the moods of those around it.

About halfway through, the action moves from Yorkshire to London. I had mixed feelings about his: on the one hand, you lose the Yorkshire landscape which Littlewood has so painstakingly built up; on the other hand, if the narrative had stayed in the soul-sucking Crakethrone Manor, the ending for our characters would have been assured and predictable. By moving the protagonists to London, they are given a chance to escape their fates and you follow their journey with renewed interest, wondering what new twists await. While the city surroundings lack the overtly sinister aspects of Yorkshire, the pacing of the middles section is good and by now you are really invested in the characters.

For the final act, we make a welcome return to Yorkshire, but not everything is as it seems. By introducing a subplot involving mesmerism, every single one of Littlewood’s characters becomes unreliable. Just who was hypnotised in that room? What exactly passed while Nathaniel was out of the room? And is the change that overcomes Mrs Harleston liberating, sinister or a mixture of both?

Those who like their endings spelled out plainly will not like the conclusion of this book. All the information is there, but the reader is obliged to pick the salient facts out of our now very unreliable narrator’s account. For me, I found the denouement was brilliantly and subtly done; the fact that I didn’t have all the answers to my questions at the end was not an issue because this novel has enough twists and turns that I could easily read it again and pick up on nuances I had missed first time around.

Littlewood’s knowledge of the era, particularly the psychological practices, is outstanding. She uses language and terminology to great effect, peppering the narrative with words like daguerreotype, alienist and frictional machine, but contextually placed so that, if you don’t know he word outright, you can at least guess at its meaning.

Even though the story is told from the point of view of Nathaniel, that doesn’t mean that the other characters are lacking in depth or individual personality. Littlewood’s great talent is her ability to show the truth of a situation and the nuances of a secondary character through the biased narrative of a single viewpoint. The version of Mrs Harleston that the reader comes to know is at the same time both the Mrs Harleston that Nathaniel sees, and also one that is inferred from the spaces between his words. By switching between two distinctive forms of narrations (the first person narrative which is dominant throughout the novel, and then sections from Nathaniel’s private journal), Littlewood is able to show not only the internal conflict of Nathaniel, but also the split nature of those he is observing and commenting on.

This novel is by far Littlewood’s best, and by the looks of it, she’s only going to get better. If you like the dark and twisted nature of Drood by Dan Simmons, of you like books that make you think and draw your own conclusions, then you’re guaranteed to enjoy this book.