The Secret Garden is one of my favorite books of all time. I’m convinced it has healing properties, and when I’m down, or not feeling my best, I pull it out and find in the healing of Mary and Colin a kind of peace. And so it was that I was feeling not all the way put together one day that I reached for, not The Secret Garden, but Ellen Potter’s new book, The Humming Room, which is inspired by Francis Hodgson Burnett’s work. I was hoping to find some similar relief in its pages, and while I did feel a little better by the last page’s turn, I’m sorry to say The Humming Room does not quite stand up to its predecessor. For those who have read The Secret Garden, the story of The Humming Room will come as no surprise. For those that haven’t (and why?), there be spoilers ahead.
Roo Fanshaw is skilled at being unseen. This is particularly useful on the fateful day her father and his girlfriend meet unfriendly ends. Roo, you see, was hiding under the trailer. But she is soon found out, and after a brief stint in foster care, is shipped off to the home of an unknown uncle. She is fetched by the uptight Ms. Valentine and brought home to Cough Rock, a former children’s hospital turned sprawling and mysterious home. Here Roo continues her special brand of hiding, uncovering in her exploration two secrets of Cough Rock, a cousin, Phillip, suffering from depression and solitude, and the deserted garden. With the help of local boy Jack (who is mysterious in and of himself), she nurtures the garden back to life, helps lead her cousin to healing and brings her absent uncle home.
I don’t normally like to review one book by calling to mind one I liked better, but in this case, it’s hard to avoid. The Secret Garden has survived for over a hundred years because it taps into something very tender and vital in all of us: the need to be nurtured. Hardly anything can grow well without light and care. The Humming Room touches on this theme, but does not cultivate it properly. The novel comes in at a slim 182 pages, and much of this time is spent setting the scene and establishing the mysteries. When it comes to Roo’s relationship with Phillip, however, it is done almost in shorthand. They have very few encounters, and the resolution is hurried. In fact the final act of the book flies by with scarcely a thought, and before you know it, it’s over. The story could have used another thirty pages or so. Not much, just enough to give the ending some breathing room and Roo some proper time to flourish.
This is not to say I didn’t enjoy The Humming Room. It does have its merits. Roo is a well-drawn character, different enough from Mary Lennox to stand on her own two feet. The descriptions, especially of the house and the garden, are very vivid. Jack’s air of mystery almost makes up for his lack of development. He’s an interesting character, though not quite as attractive a nature boy as Dicken.
Ms. Potter to me is an author with great potential. Clearly she has great stories to tell (The Kneebone Boy was another with an exciting premise); she just needs a little help and practice with the landings. She is definitely someone I will keep my eye on.
The Humming Room by Ellen Potter
2012, Feiwel and Friends
2012, Feiwel and Friends