Thursday, September 4, 2014

2015 Contenders - The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier

As vagabond Irish immigrants in nineteenth-century England, Molly and Kip don't have a lot of employment options. That's why they're headed to the cursed "sour woods," against the advice of everyone they meet, to take up employment as domestic servants. When they arrive, it's pretty clear to the reader that the advice was sound: the house is creepy, the family appears to be suffering from some kind of wasting disease, and the whole estate is dominated by a giant, menacing tree that is actually growing into the house. As I said, though: no options. So they stay. And bad things happen.

I should like this book, and I do, I guess. I just don't love it (I started it back in April, put it down, and just recently picked it up and finished it), and I'm not really sure why. I'll try to lay it out in practical terms.


  • The setting is well-realized, at least insofar as the house and its environs are concerned. The author achieves a nebulous sense of wrongness about everything in the sour woods. 
  • The characters have some depth and complexity. Molly and Kip, as well as the members of the Windsor family, achieve some believable personal growth during the course of the narrative. Secondary characters, particularly Hazel the storyteller, added color (though the two ruffians were kind of stock).
  • Style? I don't think it was distinguished, but neither was it clunky. 
  • The tone and pacing combine to give the story a genuinely frightening edge, the likes of which we don't see often enough in juvenile fiction. The night gardener himself is a scary bastard. 


  • It's another book about the power of story. Look, I believe in the power of story. I tell stories semi-professionally. I am trained in personal story facilitation. But the "power of story" theme is wearing seriously thin with me. It's right up there with the "librarian as savior" picture books that seem to be published on an annual basis. I am in the choir, folks! There's no need to preach in this direction.
  • To put the above in Newbery terms: theme. I don't think Auxier's thematic touch is light enough. As an example: when Molly brings Kip back from near-death with a story, there were some eyes rolling in this reader's head. 

It's a good book, and I will recommend it to readers of Bellairs, Aiken, and Gaiman, but I don't think it's a great book, nor the most distinguished J Fiction I've read this year.

Published in May by Harry Abrams.


  1. I enjoyed this too and attributed my lack of Newbery-level enthusiasm to taste (and that Irish brogue) and so I appreciate very much your thoughts here. If I were on the committee I'd have to explore it all more deeply, but since I'm not I'll just read others' unpacking of it (like yours here:).

  2. Henry Abrams? I think he goes by Harry :-)

  3. Oof. You're right, of course. Thanks.

    (This reminds me of the time in college when I referred to Wallaca Stevens' Opus Posthumous as Opus Mostmortem.)