The Garden of Dead Dreams
By Abby Quillen
Sidewalk Press: 2014
$13.95, 253 pp.
Reviewed by Eduardo Rey Brummel
In her novel’s opening lines, Abby Quillen tells us:
Etta Lawrence wasn’t the only one who came to Roosevelt Lodge to become someone else.
That’s why they’d all come.
Forty-some years earlier, Vincent Buchanan bought the land surrounding Roosevelt Lodge and started a writing academy. There, in this secluded section of Oregon, students have arrived each year, spending eleven monastic months strengthening and refining their craft – and hoping to win that year’s Buchanan Prize, which promises literary fame and fortune.
But we readers, with our stories of Blair Witch Projects and The Name of the Rose, don’t we suspect that something rotten has been suppurating in this Pacific Northwest enclave cut off from the rest of the world? Sure enough, Etta’s roommate, Olivia, leaves the academy under suspicious circumstances, which quickly become even more circumspect. Etta is pulled away from her writing and vortexed into the rabbit hole left in the wake of Olivia’s expulsion. Secrecy comes raining down, and all in a thunderclap, everything and everyone become questionable and suspect.
Even before Etta loses her roommate, she’s feeling separated and isolated from the rest of her classmates. One particular instructor begins creeping under her skin, eventually bringing Etta’s past back to haunt her. Another instructor, a visiting poet, who was very connected to Olivia, becomes secretive and cryptic, and then suddenly decides to leave. And, oh! A former student, who has a history of mental instability, is believed to be trespassing on the grounds. All this, and more, just in the early part of the novel.
Quillen takes necessary time to lay out the threads of her story before she begins weaving. Her years of essays and articles for the likes of YES! Magazine and Christian Science Monitor clearly served her well while crafting this story. Then, too, living under the same roof as Ed and Martha Quillen (the founders of this still-going-strong magazine) surely saturated her with the ins and outs of storytelling.
Quillen displays a calm, measured control. She skillfully and sublimely plays her cards. I have one whiney complaint, though: I want to know more of what happened during the ten months between the last two chapters. That’s not to say I don’t know what happened. Rather, I’m wanting to hear Quillen tell more of this part of the story, thus stretching out her storytelling. The characters have become so endeared, and the story so mesmerizing, I’m wishing to stay under Quillen’s spell a little longer. Fortunately, she’s beginning a new mystery series. Updates are available at her website, abbyquillen.com, where you can also subscribe to her newsletter. Until her next mystery novel, we can continue dreaming and hoping, waiting (sometimes) patiently.
Eduardo Rey Brummel thinks autumn is a perfect time to enjoy mysteries.