A Review: “The Savage Garden” by Mark Mills

The intriguing gothic title of this second effort by Mark Mills might lend the impression that this novel is something less than what it is. It is a very erudite literary work centering around a mystery held by a 400-year-old garden adjacent to a villa in Tuscany. Once again Mills has written a novel filled with rich imagery and lush characterizations after his first novel Amagansett, an auspicious literary debut if ever there was one. (Note: That book has been reissued in soft cover under the title, The Whaleboat House.)

Mark Mills has proven himself to be a literary force to be reckoned with, for both of these novels are outstanding. My slight preference would be for Amagansett for its American locale, and also for the fact that The Savage Garden includes many references to Greco-Roman mythology and literature long forgotten or never learned by this critic. Nonetheless, you really can’t go wrong with either novel. In fact, take my advice and read both of them.

The Savage Garden starts off slowly with an unnecessary literary conceit that I would have excised since it has nothing to do with the plot. However, I became entirely captivated once I got into the story. Mills has a very pleasing writing style that is intelligent without being pretentious or condescending. In short, this book is eminently readable and it was a great pleasure to pick it up each evening.

The author has evidenced a predilection for choosing mid-20th century time frames in his first two books. This story takes place during the 1950s, about a decade after the late 1940s time frame of his first novel. As an aside and somewhat curiously, a map of Amagansett, Long Island, is included inside the cover of Amagansett, where it really isn’t needed. Contrarily, a map of the Villa Docci garden would have been welcomed and appreciated inside the cover of this novel. Sadly, one isn’t provided, and I found it rather difficult to build a mental image of the layout of the garden. This, however, is a matter of small consequence.

In 1958 a highly respected British professor at Cambridge recommends to one of his students that the hidden gardens at Villa Docci, which have been maintained unaltered for 400 years, might provide a suitable subject for a doctoral thesis. The student, Adam Strickland, rises to the challenge, but, as he prepares to leave for Italy, his professor cryptically advises him not to "underestimate" his hostess, Signora Francesca Docci, even though she is elderly and frail.

The atmospheric Villa Docci resides near the small hillside town of San Casciano, a medieval walled village with the wall mostly having been destroyed by the Germans during World War II. Otherwise, little has changed there for centuries. Almost immediately after his arrival at San Casciano, Adam finds mystery layered upon mystery, not only up at the villa but also down in the village. Though not fluent in Italian, even he can recognize that sometimes words are carefully chosen to hide as much as they reveal. Nothing is what it seems with everyone having undeclared motives and hidden agendas with enough twists and turns to satisfy any reader.

The garden was built as a memorial to the young Flora Bonfadio, who had an untimely death in 1548 after only a year of marriage to the much older Frederico Docci, a wealthy merchant banker of that era. Adam finds the garden to be filled with statues of characters from Greek and Roman mythology. It proves to be well preserved and everything that Professor Crispin had promised him that it would be and more.

However, he is surprised to find the placement of the statues and even the entire garden design to be oddly dissonant and unsettling. Further research from the Docci family archives elicits the fact that Frederico Docci waited for more than two decades to build the garden. It strikes Adam as strange that a supposedly grieving husband who never married again would wait for such a long time to memorialize his wife.

Nothing is symmetrical and the purposeful asymmetry seems to suggest that the garden might contain a story hidden in metaphor much like an arboreal cryptogram. Even the entrance arch seems out of place with a scale larger than the rest of the garden. Somewhat oddly, Frederico placed "FIORE," his wife’s name in Italian, on the headstone, rather than using "Flora," her proper name in Latin. Then he had "FIORE" bracketed by two "N’s" when there was nothing on either family side that would recommend doing this. The whole garden appears to be a fiendishly conceived puzzle that has remained unsolved for four centuries.

Another curiosity exists in the fact that the entire fourth floor of Villa Docci has been sealed off. This was done by Benedetto Docci after the murder of his eldest son and heir apparent by German soldiers as they fled north from the advancing Allied forces. That was in 1945, and Benedetto has since died, leaving his widow, Signora Docci, as the mistress of the villa. Only 13 years have passed since the war, so everyone still has fresh memories of the German occupation. In spite of the death of her husband, the fourth floor remains under lock and key and everything within undisturbed according to his dying wishes.

Signora Docci may be an invalid, but she has Maria, her loyal housemaid and cook, always around to serve as her eyes and ears. Surviving the one son are a brother, Maurizio, now married with two young children, and Caterina, the apparent wild child of the family. She is the mother of Antonella, who is a fashion designer and the favored granddaughter. Antonella lives in a farmhouse on the estate and often drops by to visit. Her keen eye and knowledge of family history will prove invaluable, but her odd beauty will entrance Adam even more than the garden.