In Garden of Earthly Bodies, Sally Oliver conveys the complexity of life—not life as it appears on the surface level, in actions and interactions, but life as an ongoing historical process. The novel opens with an immersed focus on the grieving figure of Marianne, whose past experiences cannot be separated from her current existence. She struggles and seems to live in bitter despair. With heavy use of allegory and metaphor, Oliver’s treatment of Marianne’s story is an effective reminder that past events are never truly past—that they continue to exist in memory and consequence, and that the ripples of an event may never subside.
Garden of Earthly Bodies delves deeply into these ripples across a generation, into the nature and development of pain, trauma, and experience. It is not an exploration of intergenerational trauma, however, but an examination of the way in which behaviour can be passed from parent to child in a more isolated sense. It is an explicit exploration of suffering and grief.
It is not spoiling much to state that Marianne’s suffering primarily stems from trauma related to her sister, who died unexpectedly and for whose death Marianne feels a certain responsibility. The novel also explores the cultivation of experience and perception in childhood and home, reflecting as it does so the unsettling manner in which gathered layers of experience may begin to weigh the body down. Marianne’s relationships to people often seem to be relationships of observation rather than connection—this was even the case for much of her childhood, and the pattern repeats throughout her life.
For example, of Marianne’s relationship with her partner Richard, we read that, “She was effectively mourning the end of their life together while it was still in progress, had barely just begun” (p. 30). Similar distance is quickly established between Marianne and other people in the book. Even intimacy with Richard is described in unusual and, at times, nearly technical terms. Though she is aware of the effects of trauma, she does not seem to want to give it—or anything else—power over her. This includes those who might help. For instance, we read that:
She felt better when she refused to be well, perhaps because she refused to believe ‘wellness’ could be boiled down to anything. Wellness—in mind and body—was entirely complex, a mythic state, and she was adamant nobody had the right expertise to bring it to her. (p. 15).
When the book opens, Marianne is already fully immersed in a state of grief and depression. Throughout the novel, Marianne’s view of the world is dark and troubled; but, particularly in the first stage of the novel, she seems to consider herself self-destructive and the primary source of her own difficulties. Certainly her sister’s death—six months before the novel begins—powers much of this. However, it should be noted that her ailments cannot be reduced to grief alone—Marianne is also unwell physically and mentally. She struggles with a complex mixture of conditions.
There is no stark distinction between the mental and physical in Garden of Earthly Bodies. The two realms intersect and intertwine, and the troubles of the characters slip from one to the other. This slippage becomes a key feature of the novel and one of its most interesting elements. The distinction between material reality and cognitive being is broken down in several ways and revealed to be artificial. Even the very distinction between human bodies and the natural world seems to fade away in places. For example, there are frequent comparisons between human bodies and the “natural” world: an ash tree is at point described as having “a split at the bottom that gaped like the parting of a woman’s thighs, dark and cavernous. The roots rippled through the earth” (p. 263).
At times, the dense layers of significance in the book can seem heavy-handed. For example, Marianne’s sister, Marie, had hairy-cell leukemia; in her grief, Marianne, who is referred to as “Mari” by her parents, begins to grow thick black hairs along her spine. It is also revealed that her sister had a tendency to physically bury herself on family outings—not only did this prefigure her literal burial; Marie also had a habit of burying emotion and interpersonal connection during her life. This haymaker approach was likely a conscious choice on the part of the author—perhaps Marianne’s grief and suffering is so overwhelming that it consumes and colours all—but subtlety might at times nevertheless have allowed the significance of these strands to fester more effectively.
Regardless, Oliver’s novel continues in this way to work through Marianne’s life and past as it makes its way toward a major tonal shift. At about a third of the way into the book, a mysterious rehabilitation center called “Nede” is introduced. Shortly afterwards, Marianne arrives at Nede on a coach with a number of other hopeful, isolated people. The center itself is fortified, guarded, and exclusive. The patients are informed upon arrival that Nede will attempt to rehabilitate them by “dismantling the ego” and bringing them back to a place “where consciousness is brand new and timeless” (p. 142). Marianne is distrustful of the process from the beginning.
When Marianne enters Nede, the book experiences something of fissure. Things seem to suddenly accelerate and surface-level actions begin to take precedence over the kind of psychological exploration that dictated the earlier segment. Prior to her arrival, the novel operates at a far slower and more exploratory pace. When she enters Nede, Marianne also seems to step beyond reality and enter something of a dystopian space. In this space, the layers of depth that weigh so heavily early on can seem to wear thin. The depth returns, and the writing carries more gravitas, only in subsequent chapters which return to her life before her sister’s death.
In other words, I spent a lot of time considering style in Garden of Earthly Bodies. The writing does not always flow smoothly and certain sentences may have benefited from tweaking or tightening. There are even a few scattered moments when the third-person narrative abruptly twists and Marianne seems to seize control to speak to herself directly (signified in italics)—“Stop ruining everything! Nothing is as sinister as you think!” (p. 217). Yet, the writing also effectively conveys a sort of rapid and disordered disintegration. It often delves deeply into the psychological state of the main character and allows the rationale behind her actions to unravel. As a result, it can be highly effective and compelling.
There are, though, points in the book that don’t seem as polished as they could be. When Marianne arrives at Nede, for instance, and the tone shifts, the story that seemed to be developing up to that point distorts. Marianne unexpectedly encounters someone she knows at the rehabilitation center and a central metaphor in the book feels destabilized by their interaction. The hair on Marianne’s spine, still largely unexplained up to this point, is revealed to be an affliction shared by others. Nede, it is revealed, exists to study the affliction, which is related to mental trauma. In the aftermath, a seemingly new plotline begins to play out, which is then carried to completion quickly and suddenly as Marianne and her friend simply decide to escape. Overall, Marianne’s visit to Nede feels somewhat superimposed on the rest of the book, which otherwise evokes a quite different mood, and the ruminative themes of which seem not to speak to the thriller plot of the Nede sections.
Garden of Earthly Bodies is at times a powerful literary work and at other times suffers from temporary lapses. It is difficult, then, to judge the overall effect of the novel. At its best, it is a deep and complex exploration of life and trauma. Yet, though these sections give depth to what comes later on, the manner in which the story is structured establishes a distinction between the novel’s two elements which does not feel entirely convincing. In the absence of a more careful structure, the ending of the book feels rushed and far too distinct from the earlier sections. Of course, it is always possible that the reason for this may—like the secrets of Marianne’s biography—become evident only on subsequent readings.