Garden Of Earthly Bodies by Sally Oliver

I must say, the American title is much better than the painfully generic The Weight Of Loss this novel was saddled with across the pond. Garden Of Earthly Bodies at least hints at the speculative fiction plot contained within these pages.

That plot is the story of Marianne, who is grieving the death of her beloved younger sister Marie. She lives with her boyfriend Richard in London, but feels a growing alienation from him as her depression and perverse refusal to listen to her doctors drives a wedge between them. When she wakes up one day to find a strange black hair growing out of her back, she doesn’t really want to see anyone about it, since she mostly ignores medical advice anyway. But when efforts to remove both the first and subsequent hairs that begin springing up along her spine lead to a temporary madness, even she realizes that this is something way beyond her capacity to deal with on her own.

Her GP recommends a residential retreat in Wales called Nede. Upon arrival, Marianne decides that she decidedly isn’t a fan of Nede’s wellness menus or sanatorium vibe, but will admit that the forest-bathing aspect of the place is soothing. Finding a face from the past feels like finding a lifeline, but as the retreat’s strange practices begin to get to her, Marianne starts looking for a way to escape this remote estate. Trouble is, the hairs on her back, now longer and more lush than they were before she arrived, seem to want her to stay…

Bluntly, I didn’t understand the ending. There was a lot of interesting horror material here, but the pacing was just way to choppy for me, almost as if Sally Oliver couldn’t decide whether she wanted this book to be speculative fiction or “serious” fiction. There was an irritatingly Sally Rooney vibe to the “serious” bits, such that I found Marianne unlikeable even before grief hollowed her out and caused her to behave badly. Ironically, her trauma actually gave her a valid reason to be so self-defeating, and thus made her relatable. I also had little patience for anyone in her sad sack family: these were people who’d chosen their paths and chose to be glum about their choices, but the narrative expected me to treat them like interesting people. They’re not.

Far more interesting were the black hairs and Nede, which had strong Homecoming vibes. I wish these bits hadn’t felt so underdeveloped, such that I didn’t understand why the doctor was so satisfied at the close of the book. I did appreciate the allusion to Catherine Storr’s classic novel Marianne Dreams, tho I didn’t think that all of the ambitious themes and motifs quite landed otherwise. This novel would have really benefited from having more time and exposition devoted to its speculative parts, as that would have really helped clarify the extended metaphors being attempted here. Still, there’s a lot of promise in this debut and y’know, if you were one of those people who catapulted Ms Rooney to fame, you might like this book too. If it serves as your gateway to the richness of speculative fiction, then so much the better!

Garden Of Earthly Bodies by Sally Oliver was published June 7 2022 by Harry N Abrams and is available from all good booksellers, including

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