In 1965 I read a book about Summerhill School, a British boarding school for boys and girls founded in 1921 by Alexander Sutherland Neill, while I boarded at Castilleja School in Palo Alto. Summerhill was everything I longed for in a school and everything my school was not. It had been founded on the belief that the school should be made to fit the child, rather than the other way around. Happiness was foremost. Members of the school community were free to do as they pleased, so long as their actions did not cause any harm to others. This included freedom for pupils to choose which lessons, if any, they attended. I thought it sounded like the perfect hippie school.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like my studies, I did (except chemistry), but Castilleja’s buildings enclosed central gardens, sporting greens and pool, turning the site into a prison, complete with pleated skirt and white middy blouse uniforms. Students were controlled and scheduled at all times, and even the tiniest infraction would cause loss of weekend off-campus privileges. I hated it. I was too much a free spirit and nature lover to thrive there. An no boys. I yearned for Summerhill.
I just finished The Child Garden, and found myself reading about Summerhill School gone wrong. It’s called Eden School in the book. Maybe my parents had known what they were doing after all.
The dust cover flap reads: Eden was its name. “An alternative school for happy children.” But it closed in disgrace after a student’s suicide. Now it’s a care home, the grounds neglected and overgrown. Gloria Harkness is its only neighbor, staying close to her son who lives in the home, lighting up her life and breaking her heart each day.
When a childhood friend turns up at her door, Gloria doesn’t hesitate before asking him in. He claims a girl from Eden is stalking him and has goaded him into meeting near the site of the suicide. Only then, the dead begin to speak—it was murder, they say.
Gloria is in over her head before she can help it. Her loneliness, her loyalty, and her all-consuming love for her son lead her into the heart of a dark secret that threatens everything she lives for.
I was hooked by the Gothic looking cover and again by the prologue. Something had happened in 1985 and it was “time to think fast and get it right. Time to make sure only one life ended” that night.
The story opens with a glimpse of Gloria Harkness in her job at the registry office then with her ancient blind friend, Miss Drumm, and severely disabled son, Nicky, at their care home, the former site of Eden School. Status Quo. Gloria’s days revolved around the job, caring for Nicky and maintaining Miss Drumm’s cottage, Rough House, and her old dog, Walter Scott. (One of her duties as caretaker of the property was to rock the Devil’s stone in the yard of Rough House.) By the end of the visit, a storm had kicked up, puddles deep and visibility was difficult on the deserted road, twisting through the ten miles of countryside between the home and the cottage. Blinded by headlights, Gloria averts an accident and shakily continues toward home, but the car turns and follows her. Her cell phone has no bars. Locked into Rough House, she knows he’s out there with his lights turned off, but the comfort of Walter Scott and the cats calm her until Gloria hears a sound.
It turns out to be Steven “Stig” Tarrant, an old school chum Gloria had a crush on way back, and he’s in trouble. He’s being stalked by April Cowan, a classmate from Eden. Can Gloria help him?
Little by little Stig reveals the events of that Beltane night in 1985 at Eden School. Gloria is intrigued and feels loyal to an old friend, says she’ll help. They find April’s body and learn Stig is being set up to take the blame. Gloria, in between registering the county births and deaths, marriages and divorces, caring for Nicky, Miss Drumm, the cottage and the pets, takes on the responsibility to investigate April’s death and exonerate Stig.
The investigation leads her one-by-one to each of the 15 people who were present at Eden School the night “Mo-ped” died. Most of them are dead, allegedly by freak accident or suicide. Her investigation leads her to both Stig’s father, the founder of Eden School, and her own divorced husband Duggie. The twists, turns, reversals and reveals are brilliant, and the ending is not one that anyone would figure out early on, but makes perfect sick sense when Gloria figures it out.
This mystery/cold case/thriller with a little horror suspense thrown in, contains a great setting, believable characters—the vignettes of the ex-Eden children are excellent sketches of their varying, mostly sad, lives—and, especially in the final few chapters, a rising tension that will keep you awake.
Scottish by birth, McPherson has set the book in a small village near Galloway and it’s surrounding countryside. The care home property is a former grand home on an estate with a chapel, a devil’s bridge and a crypt. While the slightly archaic sounding and richly detailed descriptions are Scottish, the feel is decidedly Gothic. Gloria creeps around spooky places through dark and storm; I tensed up at every twig snap, door slam, approach of creepy character. If you want atmosphere, this book’s got it!
McPherson weaves a dark tapestry through vivid, authentic detail and sharp, emotionally complex characterization. The sprinkling of Scottishisms and language deepen the flavor to a malted blend of wood, fire, dirt, rubber, leather and the devil. McPherson’s inclusion of ancient folklore: Devil’s Bridges, hallowed places and rocking stones, lead us to believe it’s not the first time this place has been visited by evil. The death of the boy , the pattern of subsequent deaths, and the folk tales coalesce as Gloria gathers the fragments of truth to unmask the killer.
I loved everything about this book. It’s cautious pace to start, the unique characters, the shadowed events, the heart quickening suspense, the surprise ending. If you’re looking for a good Halloween-time read, this shadowy, dark mystery will be perfect.
What people are saying about The Child Garden:
“A tale that shivers with suspense.”—The New York Times
“A terrific stand-alone that is complex, haunting, and magical.”—Library Journal (Starred Review)
“A stunning combination of creepy thriller and classic mystery.”—Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
“One surprising plot twist after another leads to a shocking ending.”—Publishers Weekly
“Catriona McPherson spins webs of intrigue so beautiful and intricate she puts spiders to shame. With The Child Garden, she once again proves why she has rapidly become a star in the thriller genre…This is a book you will absolutely devour.”—William Kent Krueger, New York Timesbestselling and Edgar Award-Winning Author of Ordinary Grace
“An enchanting brew of mystery, poetry, legends, and dreams, Catriona McPherson’s The Child Garden is also an elaborate shell game that will keep readers guessing up until the very end.”—Hallie Ephron, New York TimesBestselling Author of Night Night, Sleep Tight
THE CHILD GARDEN is a scrumptious Scottish noir delight, jam packed with isolation, scenery, old secrets full of lust and greed, jealousy, bullying, and cruelty. The protagonist, Gloria, is an incredible heroine, an individual for whom the Universe seems to have been against from the beginning-yet she found her North Star and held to that anchor through the worst. A dedicated mother, friend, and in terms of animals and her task of care with the Rocking Stone, an earth mother–the kind of person once termed “salt of the earth.” The mystery–twenty-eight years old, but newly erupting in the present day–is cunningly revealed, a matter of smoke and mirrors, now you see it, now you don’t–and the revelation is incredible. Readers, we have here a true Best of 2015. ~Reader on GoodReads
I was born in Edinburgh and lived there, in Ayrshire, in Dumfriesshire and in Galloway before moving to California in 2010. I don’t know how they did it, those early emigrants who set off forever from Leith docks. I’m back home every year for a couple of months and I still can’t watch Burnistoun without sobbing.
A born swot, I finally left school at age thirty with a PhD in linguistics from Edinburgh University. Proper jobs have included banking (hopeless), library work in local studies and fine art (marvellous), and a short burst of academia (miserable). I’m now a full-time writer and hope never to have a proper job again.
When not writing, I’m reading, gardening, cooking and baking, cycling in Davis, running through walnut orchards, getting to grips with this outlandish and enormous country (43 states visited so far!) and practising an extreme form of Scotch thrift*, from eating home-grown food to dumpster-diving/skip-surfing for major appliances.
*when “making a living” as a writer, thrift helps a lot.