The Last Garden by Eva Hornung

A beautifully written, haunting novel.

‘He could not make sense of it all until he let a trickle of memory in: …’
Benedict Orion returns home to Wahreit from boarding school on the day that his father Matthias shoots his wife Eva and himself dead. Benedict, fifteen years old, discovers their bodies. The community of Wahreit is shocked. Wahreit, an isolated settlement set somewhere in colonial Australia has been founded by a community in exile awaiting the return of the Messiah. It is the ‘last garden’ of the title. But the community has been waiting for a long time, and Pastor Helfgott can feel some waverings of faith. He is not the leader that his predecessor was, and feels his deficiency keenly.

Benedict is unable to remain inside his parents’ home, and moves into the barn to live with the horses. Pastor Helfgott visits Benedict, bringing him food from the community. The novel marks the passage of the seasons. Benedict’s passage through grief is difficult to observe: he becomes more like the animals he is living with, and the community is unsure how to react. The horses, particularly the mare named Melba, provide Dominic with a focus and a way to relate to the external world. Dominic tries hard to keep hens as well (his mother had a collection of exotic hens) but there’s a fox to contend with.
Dominic’s difference becomes an issue with the community: especially when a scapegoat is needed. It has become clear that this isolated and closed community has flaws and faults.

As I read this beautifully written novel with its polished prose, I wondered if Dominic could ever find his way back to the world of humans. I wondered, too, about the community and Pastor Helfgott. Should they have done more, and what could they have done? Four themes stand out for me: the violence committed by humans (and not just that of Matthias Orion), the persistence and cunning of the fox, the strength of the horses, and the definition of redemption.

‘He opens the door with a firm hand and walks into the room.’

I found this novel unsettling in parts: I wanted to intervene in the story, to (somehow)improve Dominic’s life. It was a novel I wanted to read quickly (to know how it ended) and to read slowly (to enjoy the beauty of the writing). It’s a novel which will stay with me for a long time.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith