Odd though it may seem, this sadness that you don’t expect to find in a feel-good book is what makes it work so well.
Coincidentally, just as I finished The Twilight Garden by Sara Nisha Adams, I came across an old social media post I had made about her first book, The Reading List.
The post said: “It starts much too slow. It's unbearably sad at times ... But it draws you in and keeps you in its world...”
Much the same thoughts apply to The Twilight Garden. The pace is slow, the tone is melancholy. But by the last page, I had been drawn in so deeply that I never wanted to leave.
The Twilight Garden is about two different sets of neighbours who occupy the same two houses on Eastbourne Road, London, in different time periods. In 2019, the houses, which have a shared garden, are occupied by Winston, an Indian man who had been supposed to make a career in finance but works as a shop assistant instead, and Bernice, a recently divorced, uptight British woman who is certain that Winston will be a bad influence on her young son. Earlier, in the 1980s, the houses had been occupied by Alma, a cantankerous British woman in her sixties, and Maya and Prem, a young Indian couple from Kenya newly arrived in London.
While Maya and Alma grow close thanks to a shared love of the shared garden, Winston and Bernice are at constant loggerheads. Each however, carries a personal burden of pain. Winston is so ashamed that he gave up his parents’ ambition for him that he hasn’t been home for years. Meanwhile, Bernice winces every time she remembers how she gave up her own desires for those of her ex-husband. Lost in their own problems, the two neighbours continue to get on each other’s nerves until Winston suddenly realises that what he had thought was junk mail is actually a series of letters from an anonymous person showing him what the garden had once meant to the Eastbourne Road community. This inspires in him memories of his own mother’s garden in Gujarat and a desire to bring this garden back to life. When Bernice’s son gets involved, she gets involved too, and there you have it: The perfect feel-good plot.
But The Twilight Garden is not as simple as all that. Maya and Alma, Winston and Bernice — none of them have an easy path to a happy ending. In the 1980s, when Prem dies unexpectedly, Maya realises that she cannot afford the rent on the house. Meanwhile, Alma displays signs of dementia and must move too. In 2019, Winston is so lost to himself that he's trapped, and Bernice still cannot stand up to her ex-husband. It will take months, if not years, of grief and pain before the two sets of neighbours find the light again.
Odd though it may seem, this sadness that you don’t expect to find in a feel-good book is what makes it work so well. Most feel-good books have a magical feeling: suddenly everything falls into place and the characters wind up happier than they ever were before. But in real life, we have to work to overcome our toxic emotions and strive to find the little glimmers of happiness that lead to hope. That’s exactly what the characters do in this story and when they finally find hope, so do we.
The Twilight Garden
Sara Nisha Adams
pp. 387; Rs 499