I found this historical fiction debut absolutely captivating from the beginning. It begins with Lord and Lady Rayne who live in the big house, Oakburne Hall, with just enough room to avoid each other as much as possible. In fact since he returned from the war, Stephen has slept in a small room in the servant’s quarters while Alice lays alone in their marital bed. She finds refuge in their garden, hoping that even in these dark post-war years some seeds of hope will grow.
‘Some secrets are too terrible to tell. And in 1946 Britain is a country where most keep silent. What you witnessed during the war, what you sanctioned, what you are still afraid of, is left unsaid. For those bitter years of conflict and separation you buoyed yourselves up on sentiment, crooning ‘We’ll Meet Again’. And we did meet again, thinks Alice Rayne, only to discover we have nothing to say to one another.‘
No one survives war unscathed and though bodies are healing, their psychological wounds run deep. Those who were left behind are just as scarred as those who left to fight. Stephen Rayne was once sweet and gentle and his wife Alice truly loved him. Yet he has returned a man that she doesn’t recognised. He is bitter and angry, destroyed emotionally by what he has seen and done, holding on to secrets Alice can only guess at. She is lonely and although she hates to admit it, she is increasingly afraid of the man her husband has become, Alice is struggling to put together the pieces of her marriage and save Oakbourne Hall from total collapse. After two lots of death duties, money is incredibly tight so she begins with the walled garden and, as it starts to bear fruit, she finds the seeds of a new and forbidden love being sown.
I had so much empathy for Alice and all women who longed for the man they loved to return, only to find their relief and joy cut short when a stranger came home in their place. I’ve read a lot of novels set post-WW1, but not many set after WW2, but the same social changes come up in 1946. People are struggling financially, at the big house two world wars have taken two heirs in quick succession and the family can’t afford to repair or develop the hall. The villagers are coping with grief, poverty and rationing, and still waiting for men who’ve not yet returned. Women have once again stepped into the breech and taken on men’s jobs, giving them even more freedom and an unwillingness to be pushed back into their traditional roles. In this village, it’s not only Stephen and Alice who are suffering and as they come up against other people’s trauma the results are profoundly moving. The social change is well explored through the character of the village GP, another changed man whose longing for social justice leads to arguments with his wife and children, not to mention Stephen. Clergyman George holds so much guilt, because his ill health meant he didn’t go to fight. How can he minister to these men who’ve been through so much, things he can’t even imagine? As Stephen isolates himself more from his wife, Alice finds solace restoring the walled garden and in talking to George with whom she strikes up a friendship. He is learning about gardens and she is learning about his love of classical music.
As the friendship between George and Alice deepens, she has to think about what she wants. She has loved Stephen for so long, but his angry and violent outbursts are scaring her. Can she love this new person? George listens and appreciates her opinions, in a way she hasn’t had for a long time. When she takes a break from Oakbourne and visits her sister in London, she meets with George in a pub where his beautiful singing voice is in demand at the piano. This interlude is like a time outside of reality, where all worries and cares are set aside. With the late hour and room for George to stay at her sister’s flat will emotion boil over? In all this time, George is struggling with his ministry and his feelings for Alice. When Stephen also confides in him he has a terrible choice to make, does he guide Stephen towards speaking to his wife and saving his marriage? On the other hand, he could advise him in a way that would benefit his feelings for Alice. It’s a terrible choice to have to make, even worse he knows that his lungs are deteriorating and if he doesn’t take up the GP’s offer of treatment abroad he has only months to live. Will he follow his heart or will he sacrifice his own feelings to minister to this couple as their spiritual guide?
This is such an emotional crescendo, especially since we’re also sent back into the war and Stephen’s time infiltrating the french resistance and helping them to fight against the Germans. There, he has to make a horrible choice in order to save someone from a worse fate. His choice haunts him, although in reality he is forced to act by his knowledge of the barbarity of the German soldiers. The Maquis hail him a hero and now want to give him an honour, setting off terrible flashbacks, insomnia and guilt. Even if he tells Alice everything, can their marriage recover? I was so involved with these characters, they were so incredibly real and full of complex emotions. I loved the walled garden as a symbol of hope for the future and Alice’s work there is an act of faith, planting her hope in a symbolic gesture to her marriage and the country as a whole. I think the most moving thing about the whole novel is that this is a war that my grandparents lived through. We are so used to seeing this generation as an example, even recently our actions through Covid and the current cost of living crisis are meant to resemble their grit and determination. I believe the famous David Cameron quote is ‘we’re all in it together’ evoking the stiff upper lip of this very generation. I think because of this nostalgic view on WW2 we forget that this generation had the same emotions and complicated relationships that we do now. This book stopped me from thinking of that generation as a whole and instead to think about individuals and what they went through, how it affected them and their families and the emotional turmoil wrought by couples being apart for years. It was the wartime sections of Andrea Levy’s Small Island that first made me think about these issues and this novel woke those thoughts up again, just in a more rural setting. No generation is better than any other when it comes to trauma, we are all human. This is a stunning debut from Sarah Hardy and I’d love to read her work again.
Meet the Author
Sarah Hardy has lived for the last 10 years on the Suffolk coast which is where her novel is set. Before that she lived in London, Dublin and the Hebrides. She has worked on national magazines and newspapers.
2 thoughts on “The Walled Garden by Sarah Hardy”
Thanks for the blog tour support x
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You’re welcome Anne x