Tuesday, February 26, 2019


WILD GARLIC by Peter Thomas (Good Hope, 2018)

Reviewed by Carolyn McKenzie

An urban existence, a collapsed marriage and a restless spirit motivates a young mother to take her two year old son to live in a derelict cabin on a remote West Coast headland overlooking a village with seven permanent residents. Mystified by the warmth of the welcome and attracted by the wit and sagacity of her newly found friends, she becomes absorbed into their community. 

While uncovering some of the disturbing stories linked with her cabin, strange events and unexplained coincidences occur, which could be taken as a warning. Undeterred, and not knowing what she's being warned against, she continues making her cabin habitable - with the help of one special guy. 

But the village and her cabin conceal a thirty year old dormant secret. Is it just coincidence she resembles the young woman who, decades earlier, disappeared with her newly born daughter, leaving nothing behind except a discarded wooden box, an unfinished PhD thesis and an unsolved mystery?

When River Rhein leaves Auckland’s North Shore to begin a new life in a remote cabin built by her ex-husband’s grandfather in a tiny West Coast settlement, she scarcely imagines that she is taking herself and small son into danger and long-standing intrigue.

Anyone who has ever moved from a city into a small community will identify with the warm welcome, tinged with friendly curiosity, that River and 2-year-old Davy receive from Kurupaenui’s handful of permanent residents. However, nothing can prepare her for being woken by a cannon salute the next morning. The story behind this noisy awakening is the first indication of just how different Kurupaenui folk are to the city people River has left behind.

Thomas lets River tell her story in a chatty, colourful style that drew me into her situation immediately. Evocative descriptions of the West Coast paint a vivid picture of its isolation and ruggedness.

Several unsettling events in the cabin soon after her arrival warn River that there is something amiss in this outwardly idyllic place and in fact, as the story unfolds it is clear that WILD GARLIC’s plot has all the ingredients of a gripping thriller.

However, Thomas has used the daring technique of alternating fiction (River’s escape from Auckland, the mystery surrounding the cabin and her fledging relationships with Kurupaenui’s inhabitants) with chunks of non-fiction which range from the story of HMS Revenge (1577-91), dealing with stress, the plight of Romany people in Nazi Germany and astronomy. While the inclusion of this factual information, related by the people in the village, each according to his or her background, tells River more about her neighbours, I felt that it interrupted the flow of the story: the information is often delivered in the context of a conversation which has degenerated into a lecture with River reduced to the role of listener. I would have preferred Thomas to have aimed less at ‘teaching’ River (and his readers) and to have invested more in developing the intriguing plot.

WILD GARLIC spans several generations and embraces different cultures, religions and socio-political views: the very nature of the plot means that there is a dark thread running through it and I would have liked to see the characters involved much more in solving the mystery that surround River’s cabin.

Even more daring, perhaps even reckless, than this mix of fact-fiction is River’s frequently repeated contempt for the National Party and Auckland’s North Shore. Considering how many potential viewers this could alienate, I feel Thomas could have played down River’s opinion of her ex-husband’s politics and their neighbourhood.

Carolyn McKenzie is a freelance proofreader, copy editor, and Italian-English translator. She also offers holiday accommodation for writers and others in Thames, New Zealand and Ventimiglia Alta, Italy. 

This review was first published in FlaxFlower reviews, which focuses on in-depth reviews of New Zealand books of all kinds, and is reprinted here with the kind permission of Bronwyn Elsmore and Carolyn McKenzie. 

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