This is a truly wonderful story, full of secrets, families and friendships, set amidst the idyllic rural beauty of a Suffolk country Estate and gardens at a time when the harsh reality of the Great War is having a devastating impact on soldiers and their families. I really enjoyed both the evocative historical setting and the masterful unravelling of secrets. This story was reminiscent of The Secret Garden, which is one of my favourite childhood stories, so it’s no surprise that I loved it!
It opens with a secret in Clara’s pocket, one which occupies her mind throughout, as she tries to summon the courage to confront it.
“Sometimes pretending to be brave is enough.”
She has been sent to stay with her Aunt and Uncle, who work on the Earl’s Estate, as her poorly father, suffering from the aftermath of a gas attack in the War, is taken to Devon to convalesce. Clara’s first meeting with her Aunt, the Earl’s Housekeeper, is terse and unwelcoming, and not at all what she was expecting. She is met with curtness and unfriendliness, when what she craves most is warmth and affection.
Clara is looking for adventure and is thirsty for knowledge, brought on by the boredom of not being able to go to school or work in the gardens. Her natural curiosity is soon piqued by the sighting of an elusive boy in the gardens and the discovery of a locked room in her new home, both mysteries which she is determined to solve.
Her first encounter with the boy, Will, takes place in the hothouse. Both children are lonely and desperate for company, so it is not long before they agree to meet again in secret. They soon find a shared mystery to solve! Who is the thief behind the disappearance of the garden’s precious possessions? As the mystery deepens, suspicions are raised, more secrets are revealed and the tension is palpable as life-destroying accusations are made.
As well as catching a thief, Clara is also determined to find out why her Aunt is making night time visits to the hothouse, having secret meetings in the woods and writing behind a locked door. Are these linked to the missing possessions? Are they the cause of her lack of warmth towards Clara? I loved the way solving some puzzles only leads to more puzzles and questions … such a brilliant way to entangle the reader in the story.
I found the contrast of Clara’s contented family life before the war with the terrible effects war has had upon her family heart-breaking. The reality of how the War affected families is explored with great skill. Whilst inequality in society is shown with the Earl and his family having so many to look after their needs, the inherent goodness in people when faced with hardship is also evident with the Earl supporting the war effort by supplying the local military hospital with food.
I absolutely adored the friendship between Clara and Will, but there were also times when my heart ached for them. Whilst unexpected circumstances have thrown them together, their friendship is truly beautiful. It is born of sadness and loneliness and nurtured by mutual trust, empathy and support. The children share their family secrets, are truthful with each other (even when this may threaten their friendship) and enjoy their respective company as they work together to solve the lost secrets of the garden.
“You’re braver than you know.”
I think this applies to both of these incredible children who are, as so many were, victims of a War whose cruel fingers reached out to tear families apart, but their courage shines through as they fight for secrets to be revealed … for truths to be known …
I loved that A.M. Howell’s idea for this wonderfully heart-warming story was inspired by the discovery of a 100-year-old gardener’s notebook at the Ickworth Estate in Suffolk. Inspiration for stories may be everywhere around us, but it takes an incredible writer to capture our hearts through their writing … and this wholeheartedly captured mine.