‘The Night Garden’ by Polly Horvath


By Anita Daher

Whether Narnia, a small Swedish village, or something else entirely, we’ve all read novels set in a world we’d love to hang out in for a while. For me, such a place is the one the seaside property author Polly Horvath created in The Night Garden (Farrar Strauss, Puffin Canada), her recently launched 16th novel. It is, according to the back cover, a story about a magical garden that grants wishes. It is that, and much more.

The story begins with a beautiful cadence of simple lives, as 12-year-old Franny, our narrator, and her adoptive parents, Old Tom and Sina, rattle about in a huge, Victorian house (with a fascinating history) by the sea on Vancouver Island. Sina sculpts, tortured by her search for the true character of her subjects, Franny writes, musing on the elusive magic of story, and Old Tom tends his many gardens, including the mysterious and forbidden Night Garden.

The story takes place during the Second World War. Troops are stationed on Franny, Sina and Old Tom’s property in order to protect the coast, and when Sina isn’t sculpting, she is writing endlessly to Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, imploring him to grow facial hair, like Hitler and Mussolini, so that he might be taken more seriously on the world stage.

The rhythm of their lives is thrown into turmoil with the arrival of the three Madden siblings, whose mother, Crying Alice, must immediately travel to Comox to berate her husband, Fixing Bob, an air force mechanic who maintains a “special plane” called The Argo. Fixing Bob, she says, is intent on doing something foolish. She doesn’t provide, or perhaps doesn’t know, specific detail. With key characters in play, and with a hint of magic, a series of events unfold, and the story hurtles toward satisfying conclusion.

The Night Garden is a tapestry of mystery, mermaids, ghosts, hermits, and UFOs, embossed with a strong message about love. Polly reminds us, with humour and her quirky assembly of eccentric, mischievous misfits, that families come in an infinite combination of patterns, including family by choice.

I caught up with Polly as she was preparing for her September book launch.


Publishers Weekly has called your work “unruly, unpredictable and utterly compelling.” What does “Unruly” mean to you? 

I think unruly is probably an apt word for me. Whenever someone talks about art having rules I get twitchy. Whose rules are these? If art is anything it is the artist’s most faithful rendition of what they are called upon to do. It is a direct experience, artist to art. Nothing anyone has done before enters into it. Nothing anyone might do in the future matters either. There are no agreed upon conditions, terms or rules. You start with nothing and no one looking over your shoulder, not even yourself, or you do not start true.

Are wishes dangerous? 

Everything we do is potentially dangerous in that our actions have consequences, and often unintended ones. But if you sat around pondering that too much you’d never do anything at all.

As a young reader, were you more drawn to Pippi Longstocking, Trixie Belden—or another character entirely? 

I loved Pippi Longstocking, although I found her a little nervous-making. I thought The Long Summer and Harriet the Spy were good reads, but scary too. I was most comfortable with very safe, conventional children’s books. Edward Eager’s books were favourites. Louisa May Alcott’s were favourites. I wanted life to be safe and predictable, as do most children, I would guess. I loved Roald Dahl’s books, edgy though they were. I loved his voice. Joan Didion said that readers fall in love with a voice and I think that’s true. And I was never encouraged to or dissuaded from reading anything. We had a lot of dusty old volumes around, so I read a lot of the classics at an early age and things that nowadays people might call age inappropriate or some other silly term but I thank goodness no one worried so much about that in those days. Children were left alone to explore the world much more when I was growing up and this included reading.

I am not ordinarily a page folder, but if I were, and if I’d been reading this in paper format, I would have dog-eared the heck out of this to mark favourite bits concerning place, Franny’s thoughts on writing, so much more. Your characters are all such individuals: unique, eccentric, alive. Where and how do you find them?

I was a solitary child. When I was very young, pre-school age, I would sit on our kitchen counter and play with all the boxes and cans. They were different characters and I had whole kingdoms and complex societies going on in the cupboard. Writing is a natural extension of that. People assume you sit down and think about what you’re doing but I sit down and I see it happening and I hear their voices talking and I just type away, trying to keep up with the flow. It makes it difficult to deal with editors sometimes because they will question something, saying, I don’t think this person would say this and it baffles me. I think, ‘but they DID. I didn’t MAKE IT UP.’ I remember when in The Canning Season the mother committed suicide by cutting off her own head, my editor said, this is just not believable. No one would or could do that. But after the book came out there was a man in England who guillotined himself exactly as the mother had in the book. And a pair of sisters wrote to me from Seattle saying their mother had killed herself this way. I always figure that I get the first experience of the characters, that’s all. They aren’t mine. They just appear and I put them down on paper.

Do you have a favourite element in this story, something that stays with you more than anything else? 

There are two things in this book that touch me. One is when Franny and Sina realize that as a sculptor and a writer they have a bond that goes beyond mother/daughter. Franny writes that they understand the difficulty and the longing. The other part that touches me are the family factors. How the Madden children will follow their father into unhappiness and death rather than let him go it alone. How extraordinary families are. And similarly on a family note, Sina’s story to Franny of how she came to be in her life.

Which comes first for you when hatching a story—setting, character or plot? 

Usually what comes first is a feeling in the pit of my stomach that a story is about to happen. It’s a physical sensation. Then I just sit down and noodle.

I have an aviation background, and to me, the name of your Bomber, the Argot, sounded so right and familiar that at first I didn’t question it. Eventually I went searching for more information, and discovered the word’s perfect, fitting meaning. How did you set about finding the name for your aircraft? 

Actually it was more mundane than that. I had a friend who told me about her father maintaining such a plane when she was growing up. And I didn’t want to use the real name of the plane so I just used a similar sounding name.

 Are you a gardener? Aside from the Night Garden, which of Old Tom’s gardens are you most drawn to, and why?

I would love to be a gardener or have lovely lush gardens. I would love to have massive gardens and gardeners to care for them. I have a truly brown thumb. No matter what I do whatever I plant shrivels up and dies. There should be a name for having such an amazing ineptitude that it constitutes an anti-talent. I would like to see that term put into general use as I’m sure many of us find ourselves so blessed. And I am, sadly, the anti-gardener. But, even had I the talent I probably don’t have the patience for gardening. I’m a very impatient person and I am allergic to bees and I hate outdoor physical labour so what love of gardening I have usually expresses itself in a mad dash to the nursery in May to buy a lot of flowers and plants which will die soon after. My husband looks on drily when I get spring fever and start talking about putting in hollyhocks or some such and says, “and what will we be killing THIS year?”

Franny writes in a cupola. If you could wish your dream writing space, what would it be?

Oh, Franny’s house by the sea is my dream house and the cupola is my dream writing space. I dreamt as a little girl of having a lighthouse to write in but that now feels a bit claustrophobic to me. I think her house is ideal and I live there in my fantasies.

 What is next for you? 

 I have a book coming out in 2018 called Very Rich and I am working on the next Franny book.

For more about the author visit her website at http://www.pollyhorvath.com

Puffin Canada | 304 pages | $21.99 | cloth | ISBN# 9780374304522

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Youthful Appetite

Anita Daher

Anita Daher has lived in Summerside, PEI, Yellowknife, NT, Churchill, MB, Baker Lake, NU and Sault Ste. Marie, ON, making her an expert on the geographic location of YA writers. She is a prolific and successful YA author herself and the associate teen book editor at Great Plains Publications in Winnipeg.