In Mark Mills' seductive literary thriller, the action centers on the trials of Cambridge student Adam Strickland who, in search of a subject for his thesis, is given a unique opportunity to spend the summer in Tuscany to study a 16th-century memorial garden belonging to the wealthy Docci family.
Naturally curious, Adam jumps at the opportunity, confident that wiling away a lazy summer in Italy will not only revitalize his soul but also help him get over the effects of being unceremoniously dumped by his girlfriend. Adam, however, isn't quite prepared for what he finds when he arrives at the mysterious Docci Villa situated high atop the bucolic hills of Tuscany.
The garden surrounding the villa is in fact a complex warren of groves and grottoes conceived and laid out by a grieving husband to the memory of his dead wife. Fed by a spring that runs just below the Villa, this plunging patch of woodland reflects the Roman gardens of the period, with meandering pathways, temples and rills, inscriptions, neoclassical structures and statues. Even more surprising is a nine-tiered amphitheater crowned by a statue of a beautiful woman named "Fiore."
In almost no time at all, Adam falls under the spell of the garden and of the robust and fortress-like Villa Docci. Adam can't actually say why the garden and the Villa affect him so much; all he can point to is a vague sensation of having been momentarily transported somewhere else
- a parallel world, unquestionably beautiful, but also strangely disquieting.
Adam, however, can't quite escape the feeling that there is something not quite right about this place. As the restless whispers echo at the back of his mind, Fausto, a local tradesman, and then Signora Fanelli, the beautiful manager of the local
pensione, warn him of the dangers of getting to close to the Villa, telling him to "be careful up at there at the Villa Docci, it's a bad place, and people have a tendency to die there."
Meanwhile, the aging Signora Docci lies alone in her bedroom at the Villa, instructing Adam that he is more than welcome to have free run of the house
- everything except the top floor, which is totally off-limits. Instead, Adam chooses to spend most of his days studying the garden, ruminating on its mysteries, and it is here that Adam meets Signora Docci's granddaughter, the lovely Antonella, who tells him of its origins.
Created by the devastated Frederico in loving memory of his wife, Flora Bonfadio, who was only twenty-five years old when she died in 1548, the garden is a spectacular homage to her memory capped by the triumphal arch standing over the amphitheater on which Flora's name is carved in its Italian form. Adam is intrigued by the garden, but Antonella's answers to his questions do little to ease his need to know more about the Docci family's recent history.
Apparently, Signora Docci's husband, Benedetto, died some years before, and her eldest son, Emilio, is also dead, killed
near the end of the war by a group of German soldiers who occupied the Villa. Devastated at the death of Emilio, Benedetto closed up the top floor exactly how the Germans had left it, sealing it off forever. But why close the door to this floor and lock it? And why oblige your family to live all this time with the painful memory, rather than allowing it to dissipate over the years?
The clues steadily proliferate and the purpose of the garden, with all of its encryptions set in symbols, metaphors and allegories, gradually becomes clearer. Meanwhile, the multi-layered plot races along, and Adam is confronted with a grim catalogue of intrigues, deceits and unusual deaths that stretch down throughout history. Even the serious business of murder rears its ugly head as the web of the Docci family spins gradually into focus.
Mills does an absolutely brilliant job of coalescing Adam's own spiritual renaissance with the threads of the wider story as he weaves together the symbolism of Greek sculpture,
Renaissance literature, and the horrors of the German occupation of Italy during the Second World War.
Poor Adam is blindsided, thrown into a maelstrom of unchecked deceit and danger from which it seems almost impossible that he can ever escape. Beautifully rendered with some wonderful descriptions of the Tuscan landscape,
Mills' work is a fascinating literary thriller with a shocking ending in which the Docci family's ultimate subterfuge and their furtive desire for revenge is finally exposed.