Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Imagine a Victorian fairy tale set in 1968

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Once upon a time, there was a young woman named Emily Stoker who lived with her strict father Wilf in an English town called Billingsford.

Emily graduated from public school but stayed home to keep house for her father and help him build a massive wall between their house and next door. The wall was meant to keep out the evil neighbour Edward Black.

The Insistent Garden, Rosie Chard's second novel, has all the simplicity and lingering menace of a Victorian fairy tale. It evolves quietly into a cross between cosy mystery and romance that carries its sheltered protagonist to the threshold of the bigger world.

Chard lived in Winnipeg for half of the last decade and won Alberta's Trade Fiction Book Award in 2010 for her first novel, Seal Intestine Raincoat. She has returned to England, the country of her birth, and she now lives in Brighton.

The Insistent Garden is told in straightforward prose, but there are many things about Emily that are difficult to accept, and the plot relies too much on 11th-hour revelation and confession.

The time of the novel is 1968-69. Billingsford seems as isolated as the fantasy setting of American Richard Brautigan's 1968 cult favourite In Watermelon Sugar, though the townspeople are aware of American astronauts heading for the moon.

Mean as Wilf is, he doesn't prevent Emily from leaving the house. While he's at work, she ventures into town and even gets a part-time job. She has one friend, Una, who seems more sophisticated than Emily; that only raises the question of how Emily, now 18, could go right through school and be unfazed by her peers.

Her mother, Miriam, died when Emily was a child, yet only now is she wondering what Miriam was like and what caused her death.

Visiting overnight once a week is Emily's wicked Aunt Vivian. This nasty woman eventually moves in permanently, tormenting Emily even more than Wilf -- Vivian's brother -- does. When Wilf's at home, he spends his time either building the wall higher or putting up more wallpaper inside the house.

Meanwhile, Emily wants to raise flowers. She becomes as keen about her plants as Larry does about his garden maze in Carol Shields's Larry's Party.

She's encouraged by Archie, the old fellow who lives on the other side of the Stokers'. As her garden flourishes, she tells him, "It's the surprises that I love the most; the unexpected shape of things and the way the colours change with the height of the sun. ... I had no idea it would be like this. The growing, the flowering, it never stops."

No wonder Una tells her: "Edith, you need to meet a bloke."

The garden may be enrapturing, but there is something sinister about it, and that too is revealed in the closing pages.

Despite his brooding and his obsessive behaviour, Wilf never really comes to life, but there are some appealing lesser characters: Jean Wordsworth, the shopkeeper where Edith works, provides lively asides throughout the novel in the form of letters to her friend Gill. "She's actually quite pretty when she's not looking so worried," Jean says about Edith.

And then there is Johnny Worth, the impetuous young postman, who obviously fancies Edith.

As much as you want to give the female protagonist a good shake, you finish The Insistent Garden suspecting her life is destined to get better.

Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg writer whose latest novel is Dating.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 14, 2013 g6

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