Source- Review copy/ University of Queensland Press
Synopsis: The China Garden follows three protagonists over a 2-week period that culminates in a shocking event that affects them all. Fifty-year-old Laura has come home from Italy to bury her mother Angela and get her affairs in order. However, she has an unexpected surprise waiting for her until Angela’s death, Laura had believed she was an only child, but the will has made allowance for a brother she had never known, adopted out at birth. In another part of town, 70-year-old Cress is grieving the loss, not only of Angela, but of her own faith. She consoles herself with irregular thefts from the op shop where she volunteers: an old wedding dress, a silver fork, small pictures of the Virgin Mary. Somewhere among these things, she knows, she will relocate faith, she will fend off fear. Kieran, the watcher, sees them both. Kieran is a gatherer of information, a 30-year-old quiz show addict who failed junior school but is good at other kinds of knowing; who knits his world together with cunningly garnered facts and lovingly stored information. As the tragic event looms, it pierces and links the lives of the three characters. The China Garden explores identity in mid-century and mid-life; examining the effects of social policies in a country struggling to re-establish a fascade of goodness and morality after a major world war. It shows how the events of mid-life, the death of parents, the confrontation with lost faith or the fruits of youthful mistakes might unravel the various versions of ourselves that we construct in order to survive.
Review: The China Garden introduces three distinct characters who are linked together unknowingly but their lives become entangled with one another as the story evolves. Laura, a middle aged woman returns home to Northern NSW for her mother’s funeral and to face the past she had hidden away from for a decade. Cress is an elderly woman who sees other people’s trash through different eyes and her grandson Kieran in his 30s lives a child-like existence bound by routine, structure and remarkable curiosity for the lives of others. We are also familiarised with young Abby who bears a secret she fears to reveal.
The author has an articulate and ingenious way with language and the writing flows much like the ocean waves on the book’s front cover. The China Garden is a piece of literature that is character driven with slow plot advancement and themes of loss and sense of identity at its core.
For the first third of this book I felt quite disconnected to the characters and I did find the three POV’s confusing and the ages of the characters ambiguous, so it was difficult to relate to them. I realise the disconnectedness and uncertainty clearly reflects the experience of Laura, Kieran and even Cress who are coming to grips with the loss of Angela who was well known to some and a complete mystery to others.
Olsson tells Angela’s story through the eyes of each of the characters and it gives her a robustness which could not have been shown through just Laura’s cynical eyes or just through the idealised eyes of Kieran. But it seems Angela is the only character in this book that I feel I truly understood, could relate to and connect with. Kieran came a close second with his autistic traits which were contrasted with his gentle curiosity. Laura, I realised was very much grieving not only her mother’s loss in middle adulthood but the absence of her mother in her youth. The China Garden certainly points to the generational impact of trauma and loss and the importance of early experiences in personality development and quality of relationships in later life. I would have liked to know more about Abby as it feels like she was screaming out for someone to take a genuine interest in her rather than being taken advantage of. Fergus provided a nice balance to the story and I liked how his friendship with Laura evolved through the story.
The China Garden will suit literature lovers who enjoy slow, steady reads with intriguing characters.
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About the author: Kristina Olsson is the author of the novel In One Skin (2001) and the biography Kilroy Was Here (2005). Her journalism and non-fiction have been published in The Australian, The Courier-Mail, The Sydney Sunday Telegraph and Griffith Review. She has worked extensively as a teacher of creative writing and journalism at tertiary level and in the community, and as an advisor to government. She lives in Brisbane.