This is a story published in 2007, but set mostly in Italy in 1958. I started thinking – does that make it historical fiction? I tend to shy away from historical fiction. It seems messy. If a real-life person is written about in a fiction book, how do you know what is true and what is not? To be historical fiction does a book have to include historical events and people or simply be set in the past? Vision: A Resource for Writers has this definition: “…a literary work or category whose content is produced by the imagination and based on or concerned with events in history.” I think, according to that definition, The Savage Garden is historical fiction since it is crucial to the story that it is set in an area that was occupied by Germany during WWII. And, it is important that the story takes place when those events are still well-remembered by the community.
I picked it up because I heard from somewhere that it was a good mystery. I guess that makes it a historical mystery. There are actually two mysteries. Adam Strickland, a young English graduate student, goes to San Casciano in Tuscany to visit and research a garden at the urging of his professor. The garden was built in 1577 by Frederico Docci in memory of his wife. The garden has some unusual characteristics and Adam decides it will be a good topic for his dissertation. Uncovering the significance of the design and various artifacts in the garden is one mystery. It involves understanding many characters in the Greek myths and Italian literature. This book may be especially interesting to someone who has read or studied these ideas and texts. That is not me, but the information added rather than detracted from the story.
The second mystery has to do with the current branch of the Docci family living in the villa at the garden. Signora Docci lost a son during the war and her husband died soon after. It becomes clear that the circumstances under which her son died are somewhat mysterious. Was he really killed by Germans evacuating as the Allied troops approached? Adam becomes interested in figuring out what really happened that night. Mendelian genetics, fascists and communists, bullet trajectories, and rumors of the time all play a role in Adam’s edging closer to the truth. Complicating matters, Adam becomes involved with Signora Docci’s granddaughter, Antonella.
This is mostly an intellectual mystery. There is very little action or threats to the protagonist. The author does a good job of reminding us how young Adam is with his worries about his visiting brother or his parents back home. It is interesting to contemplate if there are 400-year old mysteries such as this garden still around waiting to be solved. That must be what drives archeologists and art historians. I definitely plan to read more by this author as it was an entertaining read and I learned something.