Reviewed by Sara Hodon
The Black Garden
by Joe Bright
Paperback: 232 pages, April 17, 2009, ISBN-13: 978-1905202980
The Black Garden contains all of the elements of a good mystery—a town’s secret, a family tragedy, a man haunted by his memories, and an innocent out-of-towner who unknowingly stumbles across it all. First-time novelist Joe Bright sets up the plot and moves it along at a good pace, yet the mystery at the heart of the story falls a bit flat.
College student Mitchell Sanders accepts a summer job clearing out the rubbish and junk in the attic and garden (which is so overgrown and shadowy it’s referred to as the Black Garden ) of the O’Brien house in rural Winter Haven . His boss, George O’Brien, is a cranky, ornery old coot who seems to have a permanent grudge against everyone and everything, particularly his neighbors and the powerful Baxter family, who owns nearly all of Winter Haven . He lives alone in the family house with his beautiful but sheltered granddaughter, Candice. Almost immediately, Mitchell senses something strange about his new employer, but neither George nor Candice will indulge him. Mitchell writes George O’Brien off as a cantankerous old soul and sets to work on the job he was hired to do. Slowly, the real story of what happened to the O’Brien family—and why George O’Brien still holds such a grudge against the whole town—come to light. Mitchell finds himself drawn into both the secret everyone seems to know, and the mysterious lives of his employers.
The novel grabs readers’ attention with George’s daughter Carolyn’s tragic suicide in the opening chapter and the storyline is just interesting enough to hold your attention to put the pieces of the town (and family)’s secret together. There are opportunities for more back story, character development, or additional plotlines that Bright did not pursue. He constructs a straightforward tale of a long-standing family feud and sorely misguided trial verdict, and doesn’t veer too far off the course. It would have been nice to see Mitchell and Candice’s undeniable attraction to each other develop into something more. Likewise, Bright eludes to personality flaws in Mitchell (he refers to his lack of assertiveness many times) and makes a few references to the girlfriend he is trying to get over, yet overall there is a sense of incompleteness in the characters. I found myself curious about Mitchell’s family—he mentions them enough that I felt I wanted to get to know them.
This was not one of those books that I stayed up until 2 a.m. reading because I couldn’t put it down. Though The Black Garden is not quite the gripping mystery that perhaps Bright was setting out to write, altogether it is a solid first effort.
About the reviewer: Sara Hodon is a part-time freelance writer who resides in Northeast Pennsylvania and is currently at work on her first novel. Reading and writing are her two favorite activities, and she is not shy about recommending a good read to others! Her work has appeared in History, Todayʼs Caregiver, SpecialLiving, and The Valley: Lebanon Valley Collegeʼs Magazine. A proud graduate of Lebanon Valley College, Sara is currently pursuing her Masterʼs degree in English at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.