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A Pleasure Garden in Memory of Shadow Sons - an Editorial Review of "Small Eden"

Book Blurb:

A boy with his head in the clouds. A man with a head full of dreams.

‘With an eye for precise detail balanced by a sweeping imagination, this beautifully constructed book is built on deep foundations.’ - JJ Marsh, author of the Beatrice Stubbs Series

1884. The symptoms of scarlet fever are easily mistaken for teething, as Robert Cooke and his pregnant wife Freya discover at the cost of their two infant sons. Freya immediately isolates for the safety of their unborn child. Cut off from each other, there is no opportunity for husband and wife to teach each other the language of their loss. By the time they meet again, the subject is taboo. But unspoken grief is a dangerous enemy. It bides its time.

A decade later and now a successful businessman, Robert decides to create a pleasure garden in memory of his sons, in the very same place he found refuge as a boy – a disused chalk quarry in Surrey’s Carshalton. But instead of sharing his vision with his wife, he widens the gulf between them by keeping her in the dark. It is another woman who translates his dreams. An obscure yet talented artist called Florence Hoddy, who lives alone with her unmarried brother, painting only what she sees from her window…

‘Life as it is, in all its terrible beauty.’ - Jean Gill, author of Historical Fiction series The Troubadours Quartet

Author Bio:

Hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch’, Jane Davis writes thought-provoking literary page turners with razor sharp dialogue and a strong commercial edge.

She spent her twenties and the first half of her thirties chasing promotions in the business world but, frustrated by the lack of a creative outlet, she turned to writing.

Her first novel, 'Half-Truths and White Lies', won a national award established with the aim of finding the next Joanne Harris. Further recognition followed in 2016 with 'An Unknown Woman' being named Self-Published Book of the Year by Writing Magazine/the David St John Thomas Charitable Trust, as well as being shortlisted in the IAN Awards, and in 2019 with 'Smash all the Windows' winning the inaugural Selfies Book Award. Her novel, 'At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock' was featured by The Lady Magazine as one of their favourite books set in the 1950s, selected as a Historical Novel Society Editor's Choice, and shortlisted for the Selfies Book Awards 2021.

Interested in how people behave under pressure, Jane introduces her characters when they are in highly volatile situations and then, in her words, she throws them to the lions. The themes she explores are diverse, ranging from pioneering female photographers, to relatives seeking justice for the victims of a fictional disaster.

Jane Davis lives in Carshalton, Surrey, in what was originally the ticket office for a Victorian pleasure gardens, known locally as ‘the gingerbread house’. Her house frequently features in her fiction. In fact, she burnt it to the ground in the opening chapter of 'An Unknown Woman'. In her latest release, Small Eden, she asks the question why one man would choose to open a pleasure gardens at a time when so many others were facing bankruptcy?

When she isn’t writing, you may spot Jane disappearing up the side of a mountain with a camera in hand.

Find out more about Jane at:

Get a FREE copy of her time-slip, photography-themed eBook, I Stopped Time, when you sign up to her mailing list at

Editorial Review:

By the time the sun sets over the ponds and the herons take to their high nesting places, Robert has established that he has the wherewithal to buy the Reynolds' land – he can create his small Eden.

With all the essence of classic literature, particularly resonating with the voice of Thomas Hardy, this novel emotes the travails and unspoken emotions of the Victorian era. We are first introduced to Robert as a young boy, a boy with dreams of soaring into the clouds in a hot-air balloon, and to his parents, Hettie and Walter, a father who encourages his youthful aspirations and a mother whose past experiences with losing her father at a young age has caused her to lead a very cautious life. When Robert's father tells him the story of a 'ropedancer', a tight-rope walker who nearly plummets to her death over the Thames, the story embeds itself into Robert's life as he grows up, marries Freya (a woman desperate to climb the social classes), and becomes father to two boys and two girls.

In his nocturnal world, his shadow-sons thrive. Thomas is already waist-high, Gerrard not far behind. They age at the same rate as their girls, their Estelle and Ida. He doesn't tell Freya that Thomas has lost a front tooth, or about the faces Gerrard pulls behind his brother's back. Superstition tells Robert he ought to be worried that he sees himself in dreams, but he can't regret this second life he leads, hearing the boys' laughter, watching the delight on their faces. And now he will create for them a place to play.

Yet, this time period is fraught with health dangers, the foremost being scarlet fever... and after “gambling” with his two boys' lives, telling his wife that all is well and no doctor is needed, tragedy strikes this young couple hard. In this world where nothing is talked about and emotions are kept secure under the facade of a stiff upper lip, grief is tamped down and “dealt” with... never discussed. Yet,the pain has a way of niggling its way to the surface, even as the years pass, sometimes in unexpected and harsh ways. Like a small water leak etching its way through rock that eventually breaks boulders.

He grapples with belief as modern men must. Darwin foisted this on them. Outwardly there is no change. His neighbours look as they've always looked, but the seed of doubt has been planted. This life may be all there is. And if that is the case the dead are not waiting, they are just names on lichened headstones to be traced with fingertips. It hollows him out, the thought that he may never meet Thomas and Gerrard again.

Ten years pass, and Robert, a successful businessman in the opium market (medicinal cures of laudanum, etc.), looks for a way to express his silent grief, again without including his wife. While Freya shelters their daughters and pines for inclusion in the social set, Robert buys a piece of land in Carshalton linked to his childhood, a place where he took refuge as a boy, and a place where he imagines his 'shadow-sons' playing. While developing his vision of an Eden-like park, he meets Miss Florence Hoddy, an incredible artist who translates his dream onto paper, securing a hold on his heart with her unabashed openness and having to deal with her own stilted dreams. In dealing with her own pain and tragedy, she teaches the others around her. Florence's way envelopes everyone who meets her – including Robert's mother, Hettie (now widowed), Robert's youngest daughter, Ida, who also dreams outside of the box, and the garden caretaker's son, also named Gerrard (of whom Robert begins to treat like a replacement son). In this created world, Robert establishes a newfound family, full of all the emotional support he has needed all along – he buries his grief in the building of this small Eden, all at the exclusion of his wife at times. But not without her own responsibility as she focuses more on the advantages the gardens bring her in society rather than the real reasons behind this creation. Her fault is never taking the opportunity to speak her lost sons' names ever again, or trying to discover the real reason for Robert's obsession with the garden.

The garden envelopes everyone's lives, transforming them in unexpected ways, winding through their lives like ivy, releasing grief's hold while at other times, tightening around throats. Robert walks a tightrope with the financial costs of what his wife considers a folly, and what starts out as a memorial to his sons threatens to crack the foundations of his marriage. Yet, each person involved faces their own change, their own pain, and the author skillfully keeps a grip on the main character, Robert's life, and goals while entwining the lives of the secondary characters. Such as, when Hettie, Robert's mother goes on a quest to Scotland to deal with her own grief of losing her father at an early age, coming back a changed woman, this episode, while away from the happenings in Carshalton, connects Hettie and Robert, linking that same 'itch' that both ultimately feel deep inside, an inheritance passed down from Hettie's parents. Hettie breaks free of the Victorian barrier of showing no emotion, finally telling her son how proud she is of him, as well as other revelations. Freya, on the other hand, fails to let the gardens transform her, even when faced with the widening gulf and possible scandal she embarks upon in the latter part of the novel.

Hettie, always so reluctant, has discovered that she too has restless feet. Perhaps here, words are unnecessary. There's a spiritual aspect to walking that she hadn't anticipated. The rocks themselves are possessed of spirit. For the first time in as long as she can remember Hettie is at peace, with herself and her surroundings. Here one can observe the daily rotations of the heavens. It is possible, even, to believe in God.

The author's love for this cottage, Rossdale Cottage, the former ticket office and entrance to Clarke's Pleasure Gardens, is quite evident, and is a tribute to the many places people find themselves attached to which hold within the roots an incredible historical story. The world around such places build up, modernizes, develops, and much history is lost, but remarkable authors such as Ms Davis, with her brilliant writing and painstaking research, bring not only the characters to life but the places, as well. The passages are breathtaking with deep meaning and structure, the characters are alive and breathing, full of self-doubt, honesty, pain, love, and struggle – all very human qualities of which any reader can connect with. Her tender care of what it means to lose a child, or children, and how avoiding grief can cause cracks in any relationship is quite noteworthy... as well as the need to memorialize the loss in a profound way speaks to this reviewer's heart. As a mother who lost two, as well, before undertaking grief counseling, for a time it was my fervent desire to create a garden to memorialize my 'shadow-children', and both my husband and I have grieved in our own individual ways while maintaining our emotional connection. Grief can wreck lives, as the author so clearly depicts, and makes you question so much, but finding your balance, of releasing the grip and finding a soft place to land, does much to heal. Bravo, Ms Davis, bravo for the life lessons and history embedded in this sensational book!

It was here, in the cottage, that I would first entertain the thought that I might one day write a novel, and I would live for that notion for a long time, turning it over and over, before I finally dared to say the words out loud. Because it has been a rule of mine since childhood: once you say something out loud, a bargain is struck.


“Small Eden” by Jane Davis receives five stars and the “Highly Recommended” award of excellence from The Historical Fiction Company.



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