The Girl in the Garden
In Melanie Wallace’s third novel, her first in hardback by a major publisher, Olive Kitteridge meets Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, both interpreted by Alice Munro. And that’s only three literary allusions one can make in describing her work.
Wallace’s Olive is a recluse named Iris. She comes to house a young, emotionally abused, and abandoned woman named June and her baby son Luke, with whom she falls in love as “Grandma.” These key characters are joined by an array of equally marginalized folks who form a small New England community. Their impact is profound in the lives of those who find their way there.
Included in the group, whom readers will come to understand and love as they begin to understand and love themselves and each other, are Oldman, a wise man who keeps the community grounded; Mabel, a lonely widow until she allows Roland into her life; Sam, a Vietnam vet with wounds both physical and psychological; and Duncan, the lawyer who sees to all their affairs with equanimity and calm.
Wallace’s storytelling skills have been called “remarkable and utterly original” by a New York Times reviewer. That may seem somewhat hyperbolic given the comparisons that readily come to mind, but she does demonstrate “a tender regard to the marginal, the missing and the lost,” as Hilary Mantel noted in the Guardian. If an editor could convince her to stop overusing dashes to insert explanations or observations, and to use quotation marks, she would rise to even greater storytelling skill.
One pleasurable aspect of getting to know the story’s characters and to care about them is watching Wallace deftly handle their interactions with one another, and her ability to share how those interactions become meaningful as they grow to know and trust each other. Indeed, the menagerie of characters are at the heart of this story, and Wallace’s treatment of their growing and healing relationships lend themselves to deep interest and high praise.
That skill is why Wallace’s works have competed well for France’s Prix Femina and Orange prizes.
Without revealing the complexities of the lives described in this fine work, or giving away compelling and nuanced backstories, perhaps one should only say that the girl in the garden, June, serves as a catalyst for contemplating the themes Wallace is concerned with: alienation, family, relationships, loss, love, and the courage life often demands—all of which are handled poignantly and powerfully. If there were a library shelf for Resilience or Human Spirit, The Girl in the Garden would surely be shelved there.