April Turner is a woman with a past she is quite willing to forget. After her son Ben is hit by a car and killed instantly, April shuns herself to five years of bland, guilt-ridden existence. Living with neither art nor company, she has reached a standstill and, like a phantom, lingers in it. That is, until one auspicious day when she receives a letter from an English solicitor, Edward Gill, who states that she is the last living heir to a country house named ‘Empyrean’.
Catherine Robertson’s brilliantly crafted narrative is undoubtedly the product of meticulous research and imagination. The novel melds the lives of people from two different time periods. The principal trajectory of the novel sees April travelling from New Zealand to the rural county of Buckinghamshire in England. As she works to restore Empyrean to its magnificent state, she befriends Oran the musician and Jack, a man who lives in the woods with his dog, Gabe. Between these calendrically arranged chapters is also embedded the second story line, that of James Potts and his experiences in Empyrean during the 1930s. His life story is related to April by Sunny, now a motherly octogenarian who has witnessed the conflict brought about by war, death, pain and love.
The novel is a fresh blend of vivid imagery and fine insight. Robertson’s clever use of humorous puns and myriad references to culture, folklore and classical antiquity enliven the story and give it a touch of intellectual colour. The name ‘Empyrean’ itself, for instance, refers to the renowned medieval opus, Divina Commedia, by Dante Alighieri. Both Edward and Sunny explain to April that, after trekking through the Inferno (Hell), the final stage of Dante’s surreal experience was his journey into the Empyrean, the celestial abode. The significance of this cultural reference lies in the question that we seek to answer: will April ever find her paradise?
While some may consider floriology and constant weather descriptions a tad overused in literature, such aspects are in this novel for a reason. The story is about life and the tentative return to living truly. It was thus a pleasantly fitting treat to read this book during winter in anticipation of the delights of spring. Oneness with the earth is a key theme that corresponds with the sense of community that April learns to cherish as she and her companions work on resurrecting and beautifying Empyrean. By sharing their personal stories, the companions discover their interconnectedness and grow more attached to each other. Being with nature is therapeutic and offers lessons of its own. In Jack’s words, “the beauty of a garden is that you can always start again.”
What April banished from her life for five years since her loss has come to reclaim and redeem her. Can she forgive herself and learn to move on? As it turns out, there is hope to be found in warmth and words, in soil and seed. This novel is an original and quietly invigorating masterpiece from a successful New Zealand author. I’ll have her know I loved it instantly.