EVA HORNUNG The Last Garden. Reviewed by Linda Godfrey
Eva Hornung shows us that the story of the Garden of Eden can have a different ending.
The Last Garden is set in an unnamed New World, most likely South Australia, where many Germans settled in the 19th century seeking relief from religious persecution. The fictional intentional community of Wahrheit, translated from the German as ‘truth’, was founded as the ‘last garden’ in which to await the return of the Messiah. Gardens — and fields — are carefully cultivated in the community, so much so that the residents live their lives according to the Book of Seasons. However, cracks begin to show in this utopia:
Pastor Helfgott, although simple, was no fool. He knew his role, knew his way. He worried about the rising wealth of the community and reminded his flock of the ephemeral nature of worldly things and the destiny for which they had been chosen.
With the increasing prosperity of the community and the length of time they had been awaiting the Messiah dissension has crept in — dissension that Pastor Helfgott cannot control. His wife, Hannelore, becomes distant from him, silent and untouchable in the face of what the pastor sees as her judgment of his weaknesses.
Matthias Orion lives on the edge of the settlement and raises horses. He has defied the traditions of the community not only by changing his surname, but by sending his son Benedict away to boarding school. On the day the boy comes home from school for the last time, his father shoots his mother in the face and then, unable to deal with what he has done, shoots himself. Benedict walks in to find his parents dead.
The people of Wahrheit see their deaths as punishment for going ‘outside’, and while they are kind to Benedict, they stay away. Benedict cannot bear to be in town and he can’t stay in the family house, so he goes to live with the animals in the barn. There is the beautiful mare, Melba, and the wild untamed colt, Fell. The horses become his companions, along with his mother’s chickens and the barn cat. Out in the paddocks he finds more — but not all — of his father’s horses.
He is traumatised; he doesn’t speak and, aside from the weekly visits from Pastor Helfgott, sees no one. The barn is well-stocked with provisions, but when they run out, he eats nothing. While dealing with the trauma he develops an empathetic relationship with the animals. They care for him and in turn he cares for them. He appreciates their nature, and witnesses birth, injury and death among them. Benedict runs with the horses; his best friend is the mare, Melba.
The shadow side to this natural world is embodied by a prowling fox that kills Benedict’s chickens — not for food but, like his father, to lay waste to everything:
The fox was ahead, red as red. His brush trailed on the ground, his ears joined the mountains, making serrations against the sky. Then he turned, and the beam of his glance swung, snagged Benedict’s eyes and held. Benedict knew he would follow. The fox turned and trotted ahead, his tail glowing like fire. Benedict ran after him, urgent with questions.
The pastor quietly supports Benedict, bringing food and news and accepting his reversion to an animal state. He encourages others to visit, but they find Benedict too strange; his aunt comes once then stays away. A young woman, Helene Katz, comes to visit with the pastor, and she and Benedict are drawn to each other.
There is a wonderful juxtaposition between the strict observations of the turning of the year in the Book of the Seasons and Benedict’s wilder scrounging off the land. There is a strong sense of the rot and stiffness that comes with the ordered, prescribed life of the community: the complacency; the blindness and lack of sympathy for anything different.
There’s a lot in this novel – evil in the midst of the Garden of Eden; a simple ordered life versus wild untamed nature; imposed restrictions versus finding your own moral compass by instinct. And most importantly, the wisdom and warmth of animals. They are not dumb beasts that humans can use as they will, but sentient, loving, caring beings.
Hornung has given us an allegory for the modern world. For me the most important thing to take away from the book is that we can embrace difference, and take care of those who are vulnerable. Genuine feeling for others is so much more important than adhering to doctrine. In this novel, when the lessons are learned, the story of the Garden of Eden can have a different ending.
Linda Godfrey is a writer, editor and Program Manager of the Wollongong Writers Festival. She has a Masters of Professional Writing from UTS and is writing a novel about cults.
Eva Hornung The Last Garden Text 2017 PB 224pp $29.99
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