What was so appealing to me about “The Savage Garden” was first, a very engrossing and intriguing story, and second, to add extra spice, the very clever links with neoclassical literature, especially Dante’s epic poem Divine Comedy, and the soul’s journey towards God from Inferno (Hell), through Purgatorio and onto Paradiso (Heaven). There is the basis here for a great puzzle!
It is 1958 and Adam Strickland is a Cambridge University art history student, under the supervision of Professor Leonard. He is offered a summer assignment in a Tuscan villa, to research the famous memorial garden owned by Signora Docci. The garden of the Docci Villa is majestic with meandering pathways, sunken groves, statues, inscriptions and neoclassical structures. On the first inspection, it is art and nature coming together to provide a symbolic memorial dedicated to the memory of a nobleman’s wife.
On subsequent, deeper inspections, there have been recent changes and a few anomalies. The design appears like Dante’s 9 circles of hell, but with some slight differences, and the thought strikes Adam that they might be deliberate. It adds brilliantly to the mysterious seductive feel of the story and quite a number of secrets are concealed in the house and garden. Gradually Adam resolves some teasing clues and the mystery starts to unfold.
In post Second World War Tuscany, the aftermath of the war is still remembered and pertinent. The Docci villa was used by the Nazis as a base in the area and still maintains that stigma. A family member was murdered during the Nazi occupation and parts of the house have been sealed ever since. Amidst the suspense and deception, there is a romantic interest, a threat from the locals, and family revelations that are shocking. Mills does a wonderful job adding all these layers to an intriguing plot that plays on prejudices and weaves in a classical puzzle. The pace is more leisurely but it suits this story very well.
I was so captivated with The Savage Garden, its storyline, subplots and writing style that I bought all Mark Mills’ books. Mills always delivers an interesting story, good characters, great visualisation of the surroundings, and captivating and intriguing plots. This was my favourite book at one time, and still one I would highly recommend.