Brian Castro starts this story as exquisitely as he finishes it. It opens with this:
Sometimes when you walk down to the cairn they’ve erected in memory of the crash you feel a bit ghoulish – wun gwai, as they say ambiguously in Chinese, ‘hunting phantoms’ which also means ‘looking for nothing’. A daft undertaking. You wouldn’t want to die on this side of the mountain, overcome by smoke. There is a stony track leading from the lookout, littered with bourbon bottles and flattened beer cans. Beneath that there are the burnt remains of other times; layers and older layers. For a forensic collector, everything has its sombre significance. You may be looking at the last moments of a human gesture.
Evocative without ever losing its tether, The Garden Book is the perfect entry into Castro’s work. The pain in this novel is beautifully rendered in the way that all pain makes us: undone. And, like many tragic aspects of life, if anything can be attributed to what unfolds, it is the innocence of the characters that pulls them into disarray.
This is a modern story set in the pageant of the years between the 20th century’s two world wars. With the period covering the great depression, the sweep of extremes in fortunes as well as mores, is the perfect backdrop. Arguably, a period of both the greatest freedoms for some and the worst of social constraints for others, pride and duty and expectation meet fearlessness and audacity, and the want for fun. The three central characters present points on a triangle – each as far from the other as possible, while being connected. For this reason alone, inside that triangle’s parameters, the extremes are bound to swell.
This is a novel that feeds art into the soul. It is a tale of the possibility of adventure and its counterpart: that of thunderous calamity when things from a big life, fall apart.