‘The Winter Garden’ is an atmospheric historical fantasy novel about love, grief, friendship, feminism, and escapism, with elements of magical realism entwined with grittier steampunk. It’s beautifully written, and while it doesn’t quite have the depth it strives for it makes a compelling read.
On the night her mother dies, eight-year-old Beatrice finds herself invited to a mysterious Winter Garden – a place of wonder and magic, a nighttime refuge from all the horrors of daylight. For one glorious week it is her sanctuary – then it disappears, and it becomes Beatrice’s life goal to find it again. Eighteen years later, Beatrice is poised to marry a man all of society insists is highly eligible. Instead, she calls off the wedding, embarking on a worldwide trip to track down the elusive Winter Garden – an unimaginable scandal. Her best friend, Rosa, finds herself marrying the man instead. As their lives diverge, both find themselves with regrets. But The Winter Garden is looking out for them, offering both the chance to participate in a unique competition – with the prize a single wish. As the two find themselves combatants, their lifelong friendship is tested, and they find themselves grappling with a thorny question: if you could go back and change a single moment in your life, would you?
The biggest issue with this book is highlighted by how difficult it is to sum up in a single paragraph. This is a book about two women and the different choices they make; about the quest to find a magical garden; about regret and how dwelling on the past shapes the future. It’s about a competition, but the competition doesn’t start until around halfway through. In short: this is a book which tries to do a lot, and mostly succeeds, but by cramming in so much it doesn’t quite do each element justice. There isn’t really a single overarching narrative – not in itself a problem, but it makes this a challenging book to recommend or review.
With that out of the way, there are lots of things to like. Beatrice makes a highly compelling protagonist – opinionated, not concerned with sticking to societal convention, and deeply caring about her family and friends. She has her flaws – she cares deeply about herself as much as others, and can be unthinkingly selfish with her own privilege – but she’s incredibly relatable, and its difficult not to root for her. Similarly, Rosa is a strong character – one with different dreams to Beatrice, but equally opinionated and determined. Where Beatrice is asexual and quite content to be alone, Rosa desires a family – but she also values her independence, difficult things to balance in Victorian society. Rosa is never afraid to call Beatrice out on her flaws, and their relationship throughout the book is exceptionally well done.
The use of language throughout is excellent. Alex Bell paints beautiful pictures of gardens, of Rosa’s intricate clockwork creations, of society balls – and of course of the variety of places Beatrice explores. She also manages to nail the emotional turmoil Beatrice and Rosa experience – Beatrice’s struggles with loss, and later addiction; Rosa’s difficulty in maintaining her autonomy once she’s married, and her complex thoughts about Beatrice as they both change and grow. Bell’s imagination is also incredible – the ideas surrounding the magical realism and steampunk elements are creative and brilliantly incorporated.
‘The Winter Garden’ has drawn a lot of comparisons to ‘The Night Circus‘, and on a superficial level it’s easy to see why. Both are magical realism books about a mysterious, wonderful place which only opens at night, hosts a secret competition, and is difficult to find unless it wants you to. There are deeper comparisons too – both books deal heavily with themes of autonomy. However, ‘The Winter Garden’ is a much more plot-driven tale, more directly tackling themes like feminism and grief. It’s also a book with a message – where ‘The Night Circus’ is pure escapist fantasy, ‘The Winter Garden’ tries to translate this into messages for life, something which will likely work well for some reasons and seem a bit preachy to others.
Overall, ‘The Winter Garden’ is a beautiful and creative story, albeit one which struggles in trying to carry so many narrative threads. Recommended for fans of historical fantasy and magical realism, books about strong women, and fans of Erin Morgenstern and Robert Dinsdale (Paris by Starlight).
Thanks to Del Rey for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review
Published by Del Rey
Hardback: 2nd September 2021