The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier: Children’s gothic story
Overall rating: 9/10
Quality of writing: 9/10
Concerning content (language, violence, etc.): small
Age level: 12 and up (note Concerning Content below)
Molly and Kip, two Irish siblings, travel to find work as servants at a strange, crumbling English manor house; however, the family inhabiting the house soon begins to exhibit strange behaviors. Then, when a mysterious stranger appears to be lurking around the house, an ancient curse is revealed—one that threatens not only Molly and Kip, but also the family themselves.
Written in a decidedly Gothic style, The Night Gardener incorporates significant mystery and suspense, as well as intriguing frame stories; Auxier’s characters are engaging and believable, and the story’s setting complements the enigmatic progress of the plot well. While this book does include a significant amount of “scary” scenes, it is overall a very well written and enjoyable book to read, and I recommend it highly to readers who aren’t bothered by literature with a rather Gothic tone.
The plot of The Night Gardener revolves primarily around Kip and Molly’s search for the source of the mysterious happenings at the mansion: a strange dark figure prowls by night, and the Windsor family are behaving more and more bizarrely. Characterized by uncertainty and mystery, the plot is mostly shaped by their ongoing search for answers; however, after they discover the identity of the figure (the nightmarish Night Gardener), the second section of the plot deals with their efforts to combat and defeat him. The plot of this book is not overly fast-paced overall, but remains engaging and interesting throughout.
Additionally, while the main plotline deals with mystery and/or combat, further conflicts deepen the story’s scope by addressing personal struggles of the characters. For example, the mansion contains an dark, twisted, magical tree (closely associated with the Night Gardener himself) that can grant wishes—but it also twists them in such a way as to harm the wisher, while keeping them dependent on the tree’s power. This provides a nice point of internal conflict for the characters, as they must decide whether or not to leave the mansion and escape the Night Gardener—but leave behind the apparent fulfillment of their every desire. (For Molly, for example, the tree provides letters seeming to be from her and Kip’s missing parents). Overall, the plot of The Night Gardener combines elements of internal and external conflict with suspense-based action to create an engaging and compelling series of events in the story. (9.5/10)
The characters in The Night Gardener are quite well-developed (as per Jonathan Auxier’s usual): Molly and Kip, as the protagonists, have to deal with significant conflict over how (or whether) they can help the Windsor family free themselves from the mysterious influence of the mansion, the wish-tree, and the Night Gardener; Molly especially is also tempted severely by the insidious power of the tree (which offers her not only letters from her lost parents, but also medicine to heal Kip’s longtime deformity). However, the reader ultimately sees both Molly and Kip triumph over the tree and the Night Gardener, rejecting the harmful “gifts” of the tree.
The other characters are similarly interesting. The Windsor family provides a chilling example of the tree’s influence, as they are entirely dependent on the tree’s producing money (somehow never quite enough) to pay off their debts, which forces them to remain under the Night Gardener’s dark power. Hester Kettle the storyteller (my personal favorite character in this book) is simply a quirky, crotchety tale-spinner who is great fun to read. Doctor Crouch is an interesting caricature of a scientific man—who nevertheless reveals important lessons about the dangers of meddling with the unknown . And, of course, the Night Gardener himself—a shadowy, nightmarish figure who feeds on the sadness and bad dreams of the mansion’s occupants. Overall, The Night Gardener’s varied cast of characters are well-written and range from amusing to serious—or even terrifying. (9/10)
The general style of writing in The Night Gardener is not too difficult and incorporates readable diction and syntax. With limited (although sufficient) descriptive language, the book shouldn’t prove too hard for most. On the other hand, younger readers might have a bit of difficulty picking up on some of the implications of certain dialogue or actions of characters (the Windsor family, for example, tries to conceal many things from Molly and Kit, but Auxier clearly intends for readers to pick up on this). The style of this book as a whole is not a problem, but the implied background to certain sections might be a bit tricky for some. However, this book is not well-suited for particularly young readers anyway, so this shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
Quality of writing
This book is overall very well-written, as are all of Auxier’s books (hopefully to be reviewed soon). As I mentioned above, the book is quite engaging, especially considering its mystery and suspense—many chapters end on cliffhangers, and I personally found this book very hard to put down. Furthermore, the characters are extremely varied and believable, especially Molly and her sisterly concern for Kip. Finally, Auxier also weaves in some very nice themes of sacrifice (spoiler: Molly ends up having to destroy her treasured “letters from her parents” in order to defeat the Night Gardener by using them to set the tree on fire), and on the whole, this book certainly merits its 9/10 rating on quality of writing.
While this book is certainly well-written and interesting to read, it’s not without its scary scenes. Written in a clearly Gothic style, the action largely revolves around the decidedly spooky Night Gardener—a seemingly-immortal, shadowy “gardener” who roams the mansion by night, caring for the twisted tree that literally grows through the house and collecting the essence of the nightmares of the house’s sleeping inhabitants. In addition, the Night Gardener doesn’t exactly take kindly to the protagonists’ efforts to fight it: the Night Gardener kills four characters over the course of the book, one crushed by a hurtling door, one struck by a falling branch, and two killed “off-screen.” While these deaths aren’t gory per se, they are definitely a bit disturbing—the character who is hit by the branch dies relatively slowly and bleeds some at the mouth, and the reader does hear the anguished screams of the two characters whose deaths aren’t explicitly described. Furthermore, many of the scenes are pretty spooky, with characters encountering the Night Gardener roaming by night and going about his nightmarish business. Overall, this book is recommended only for readers who can handle some fairly scary scenes.
This book is recommended for ages 12 and up, based on its readable style and plot. However, even more so than in other books, I recommend that readers and parents of readers evaluate this book for themselves before reading, considering its multiple scary scenes and character deaths.