The Last Garden
The opening sentence of Eva Hornung’s seventh novel, The Last Garden, encapsulates how strange and how mesmerising in her clarity her writing can be:
On a mild Nebelung’s afternoon, Matthias Orion, having lived as an exclamation mark in the Wahrheit settlement and as the capital letter at home, killed himself.
This is a gruesome but somehow irresistible enticement. A man kills not only himself but his wife, a murder-suicide with no apparent motive. When Benedict, the couple’s rather dreamy 15-year-old son, comes back from boarding school, he refuses to go near the fatal family home, preferring to doss down in the barn with his beloved horses.
And what are Nebelung and Wahrheit? The Last Garden is set in an isolated religious community some time in the middle of the 19th century in colonial Australia. They’re all German-speaking immigrants or their children, and they still follow the Old High German calendar introduced by Charlemagne more than a thousand years before. Nebelung is November.
By February – the word for which in the old lingo is, incidentally, Hornung – Benedict has withdrawn utterly from humanity, from any recognisable selfhood. He drifts in a world of instinct and pure feeling, becoming would-be horse or some damaged child of nature. Pastor Helfgott visits the barn regularly and is appalled by – but also attracted to – the fierce pagan energies that have been released in the boy. The Last Garden is the story of Benedict’s journey back from the brink of mental collapse to the world of attachment and responsibility. It is also the story of a community tearing itself apart. The closed settlement was founded in the belief that the Second Coming was imminent. That was many years before and now the townsfolk are prospering but getting restless, impatient with the old ways and the old prophecies. Interbreeding has also brought its horrors: babies born without ears and such mutations. Wahrheit means truth, but could the town have been fostered in falsity?
Yes, there are grotesque and sinister surprises aplenty in this weird prodigy of a book, but there is a lot of tenderness and an extraordinary beauty, too. Like Dog Boy, for which she won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2010, The Last Garden explores the ways in which the line between human and animal can be blurred and crossed and what happens to those who return from the metamorphosis. JR
Text, 224pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 13, 2017 as "Eva Hornung, The Last Garden".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.