That takes your breath. And that’s what I found in Durbin’s novel. It was just lovely. It was sweet and mellow and sad and hopeful. I would have never found it if it hadn’t been laying in wait for me on a shelf at my library. The title was mysterious and charming and I couldn’t walk away from it, even though I had more books to read than I’ll ever finish and this was a book by an author who was unheard of to me. I’m glad I couldn’t walk away, because I would’ve missed something magical.
There were no chapters in this book; just occasional extra spaces between paragraphs to serve as breaks. There were no names in this book. Just a nameless war, a nameless village, and nameless occupants of that village, referred to as Mrs. D—— or Major P——. This could have been anywhere, on either side of any large war after the invention of airplanes and before televisions were common in small, rural villages. Our main character could have been any nine-year-old boy visiting his grandmother for the first time.
It is a strange thing to spend your days with a person connected to you only by the link of someone you both hold dear, but the young one they knew is not quite the same as the older one you know. It’s like talking to someone through a hedge. Now and then, you see an outline, the edge of a face between the leaves. You can only walk along in search of a gate.
This spring and summer spent with our narrator’s grandmother in the little village by the sea rocked his world. He had been born and bred in a city, and he had no idea that life could be like this. With streets that wandered and meandered like lazy streams between open shop fronts and quaint house, with benches scattered about in an open invitation to sit and chat with neighbors around every corner. “There were no posted names, no numbers on doors or lanes.” Everyone simply knew where to find whoever they wanted to talk to. It was a slower, fuller life than our main character had ever experienced.
After a few weeks in the village, our city began to feel like a distant dream. I knew it was real, that if I rode the train again, it would be there, and its bricks would become the reality once more, and this village would be the dream. One person, I’d come to understand, was actually many people—people of different ages, people who lived in different surroundings; these people had the same name and knew something of each other, but lived entirely separate lives.
These were all things our protagonist learned before the main action of the story began. Before there was an enemy pilot in need of rescuing. Before he stumbled upon the grove of monsters, a garden of splendid statues and secrets. Before he met Mr. Girandole, the one and only character named in the book, who is his grandmother’s best friend and is more than human. The grove of monsters houses a riddle that, if solved, will unlock the door to Faery and Mr. Girandole’s way back home. But the garden is wild, and the riddle is muddled beneath vines and thorns and age. Does the riddle left behind by the vanishing duke even possess a solution?
The writing here was exquisite. When I first started reading, I was afraid that the lack of chapters and proper names would make reading the book tiresome, but that was never the case. The book unwound around its mystery as the grove of monsters did, beautifully and mysteriously and in its own time. Durbin did a phenomenal job of dropping just enough clues for the reader to understand pieces of the riddle just a few pages before his characters drew the same conclusions, letting readers feel as though they were making discoveries of their own.
This book walked the line between fantasy and magical realism, and I’m still not sure which of those genres it fits best. It reminded me of Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and of what Beagle’s Summerlong could have been. I loved it, and am so glad I happened upon it. If you need something sweet and moving and filled with wonder, this is the book for you.