Last year I attended a Simon & Schuster event to celebrate a few of their lead up-coming titles, and even though The Night Gardener was not one of the featured books, there was a buzz in the room about it. “Have you heard about The Night Gardener yet?” I was asked a few times by a few different people. I hadn’t, but I was assured it was magnificent. The Fan Brothers (Terry and Eric) were there, surrounded by admirers as befit their buzz.
When The Night Gardener finally found its way into our mailbox (Editor’s note: We don’t have a mailbox) we were, to put it mildly, intrigued.
William’s small town is drab and grey; not a lot of life there. But one morning William awakes to find that the tree outside his bedroom window has been shaped into a beautiful, wise old owl. Over the next several nights more a virtual menagerie pops up around town, with new creatures being added nightly. William sneaks out at night to find out who the mysterious person is behind these creations, and he ends up becoming a sort of apprentice gardener.
The Night Gardener is about the magic of art, and its transformative abilities, not just on the physical world, but the spiritual one and the self. After The Night Gardener leaves, the small town remains changed at its core. That is what art can do. That is what creativity can do. There are countless books that make this point, but most of them do it with a sledgehammer, and little (if any) narrative finesse. The Fan Brothers have narrative finesse coming out of their collective wazoo, and for all that I heard about how the book looks, how it reads is where the magic lies for me, the text is minimal, but perfectly chosen.
To my eye, the weakness of the book is in the quality of the printed illustrations. I understand it’s meant to appear moonlit, but the illustrations instead often seem washed out or sun-bleached, like it’s been left outside too long. They are as stunning as the hype would suggest, but they lack a certain crispness or punch that I find frustrating. In my experience, moonlit colours maintain a vibrancy that’s missing here. (Interestingly, their cover illustration for Ali Benjamin’s up-coming The Thing About Jellyfish has the same washed-out quality and frustrates me in the same way.)
To be clear: This is a personal reaction, and I am well aware, having read a number of deservedly glowing reviews of The Night Gardener, that I am firmly in the minority, so feel free to disregard that criticism as the griping of a bitter old man.
What you should not do is disregard this book, as The Night Gardener is the kind of book that has the power to become a beloved part of a person’s life.
Kinderlit.ca received a copy of The Night Gardener in exchange for an honest review. Read about our Review Policy here.