My "Italy in Books" reading challenge continues with The Savage Garden by Mark Mills.
In 1958, Adam Strickland, a Cambridge art history student, travels to Tuscany to study the sixteenth-century garden belonging to Villa Docci. His intention is to write his thesis on the Mannerist garden that occupies a sunken grove near the imposing villa. His Italian summer, however, will teach him much more than he could have ever imagined.
Conceived by Federico Docci in 1577, the garden had been created in memory of his beloved wife and was inhabited by classical statues that re-enacted their tales of love and longing amidst grottoes, fountains and triumphal arches. Instantly fascinated, Adam seems to think that the apparently clear display of grief and love hides a secret message.
Adam is also intrigued by the Docci family. There is Signora Docci, the matriarch, who takes a shine to the English student. There is her son, Emilio, whom Adam finds oddly suspicious. And then, Antonella, the “wild one”, the granddaughter who immediately wakes Adam’s interest. Last but not least, the presence of Emilio, the Signora’s other son, hovers above them all.
Emilio’s death at the hand of German soldiers at the end of World War II is the second mystery that Adam is determined to solve. Unlike the protagonists of the garden mystery, however, the people involved in the murder of Emilio are very much alive and determined to keep the past in the past.
The Italy that Mark Mills describes is a post-war country where political and personal tensions are intensified by the summer heat. The Savage Garden is a well-structured novel and the characters – both main and minor ones – are portrayed in a way that makes you doubt of them all until the very end.
If you like this genre and have a soft spot for Italy, this is the book for you!