My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Three stories that seem, on the surface, to have no connection give The Sea Garden a disjointed feel. But I think that sensation is intentional, meant to reflect the moods of the three women who serve as protagonists for these stories.
Lawrenson begins in the present day, with Ellie, a rather depressed landscape designer who has been commissioned to create a garden on an idyllic French island. Unfortunately, the estate owner is eccentric, to say the least, and the project goes from bad to worse. What some have seen as an abrupt ending to this story struck me as very moving and with definite supernatural overtones.
The next two stories travel further back in time, to Vichy France in World War II. One tells of a blind perfume designer named Marthe who aids the Resistance. The other recounts the story of Iris, an English girl hired to work for a top-secret code-breaking organization that’s aiding the French Resistance fighters.
It’s hard to give a lot of detail about this book without ruining the various surprises and twists. The biggest issue I had with the book is the jarring shift in mood from the first story to the the other two. While the first tale, “The Sea Garden,” creates an almost Gothic atmosphere (think du Maurier or Victoria Holt), the other two are firmly grounded in a very real world at war. This leads to the ending feeling a little “tacked on” and contrived, since the supernatural tone goes away for about three-quarters of the book and then suddenly returns.
Nonetheless, I really enjoyed these stories. I’m always happy to read stories about strong, independent women and Marthe and Iris definitely fit the bill. Ellie’s story is more problematic and sad, but that one makes excellent use of mood and setting.
On a peripheral note, I love that the third story, “A Shadow Life,” makes use of and calls attention to the very real and overlooked story of Vera Atkins’ Lost Agents.
Vera Atkins (Miss Acton in Lawrenson’s fictionalized account) oversaw a network of spies for one of Britain’s wartime intelligence organizations, the SOE. Over 100 agents, many of them women, were sent into France as radio operators and many of them vanished without a trace. Others are known to have perished in concentration camps within a few months of arriving in country. Their loss is a bitter lesson in the price of government incompetence and arrogance, since the girls repeatedly attempted to send coded messages warning their British handlers that the network had been compromised. Whether the messages were ignored due to incompetence or indifference on the part of their handlers is open to debate. In “A Shadow Life,” Lawrenson seems to come down on the side of incompetence on the part of the mission commanders. Whatever became of the real girls, Lawrenson takes this tragic piece of history and uses it to fashion an entertaining, original, and moving piece of fiction in The Sea Garden.