The epigraph to the first chapter of Eva Hornung’s The Last Garden speaks of Nebelung, a time of great prosperity, joy, and hope for new life. Over the page, Hornung shatters any sense of well-being with an extraordinary opening sentence: ‘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.’ The prose just keeps getting better as Hornung counterpoints the consciousness of a man driven to murder and suicide with the heartbreaking innocence of his unknowing adolescent son, Benedict.
Two storylines are in conversation throughout this impressive novel. One follows Benedict, who withdraws from human contact and speech, seeking refuge among the horses and chickens on his father’s farm. Hornung takes us deep inside Benedict’s mind and heart. In a narrative that has much to say about the inadequacy of words, she uses them powerfully to convey the boy’s tortured grief, confusion, and despair. The second storyline concerns the goings on in Wahrheit, a small religious community to which Benedict and his family once belonged. Wahrheit, founded in exile to await the Messiah, is now under the spiritual guidance of Pastor Helfgott. He is a good man who cares deeply for his flock, but he lacks the authority and charisma of his late father. Pastor Helfgott continues to preach from his father’s The Book of Seasons, but the ‘passionate certainty of those loved words’ begins to falter; the threads that once held this community together are unravelling.