Small Eden

Written by Jane Davis
Review by Sally Zigmond

1884. When the two young sons of Robert and Freya Cook die of scarlet fever, Robert is guilt-ridden for denying the seriousness of the illness. This and Freya’s resentment ends their happy marriage, yet Victorian society keeps them tied together, going through the motions, climbing society and rearing their daughters, Estelle and Ida.

Ten years later Robert discovers the chalk pit which was his refuge from his own troubled childhood. He recklessly buys it in the hope of creating a pleasure garden in memory of his two sons, imagining them playing and enjoying its delights for all eternity. Estelle is not interested, and nor is Freya, who, apart from throwing her energies into a tennis club, dotes on her eldest daughter, moulding her sense of duty and propriety in her own image.

Her younger daughter, Ida, born just after the death of her dead brothers, is more imaginative but irritates her mother. In the meantime, Robert’s widowed mother, Hettie, has only a parrot for company until she takes the biggest gamble of her life and takes the train to the Scottish Highlands and walks the mountains where her parents met and fell in love and where her own father met his end.

Robert holds a competition in which the winner designs the garden. He is shocked when a disabled female artist, Florence Hoddy, wins. He is drawn to her for her talent, honesty and perspicacity. This is a novel of gambles. You take your chances and you run with them to the bitter end, win or lose. However, you cannot stop time. Nothing stays the same and London’s bricks and concrete creep ever closer to the Surrey hills.

Jane Davis has written yet another well-researched and page-turning historical novel, both heart-wrenching and delightful. Highly recommended.