Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 22, 2018

The Last Garden (2017), by Eva Hornung

Eva Hornung is a Victorian-born author who now lives in rural South Australia, and her love of the bush environment dominates this intriguing novel. I’ve had The Last Garden on my TBR since I bought it last year, but it’s been long-listed for the 2018 ALS Gold Medal so this seems like a good time to read it.

#Understatement I wasn’t very keen on  Dog Boy (which won the 2010 Prime Minister’s Award, so I was well-and-truly out of step there!) but The Last Garden is a less confronting novel.  It does, however, include grotesque elements that Hornung seems to favour.  This is how it begins:

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.

He spent a strange day in surly, secret violence, compelled to destroy anything he considered to be part of himself, but almost unaware of where his black mood was taking him.  He could find no release.  He walked, reloading as he trod, crunching up his own driveway and entered his beautiful house as if blown by a harsh wind, unable to stop and remove his boots.

Ada came out of the kitchen, wiped befeathered hands on her pinafore.

Her eyes widened, travelled up and down with a storm brewing behind them as her mouth moved, but he heard nothing above the roar in his head.  A wave swept over him, and before he had stopped to think he had shot his wife through the heart as she stood by the sideboard.  She crumpled into silence, a hush that he recognised as unique among hushes: the end of everything.  (p.3-4)

Horrific, yes, but irresistible too.  There are puzzling elements in this striking introduction.  A quick Google search told me that ‘Wahrheit’ is a German word meaning ‘Truth’, but I had to read on to confirm my suspicion that the Wagnerian-sounding ‘Nebelung’ was derived from an archaic calendar.  Each chapter, one for each month of the year, is prefaced by a quasi-religious tract describing the climate, but if Nebelung, preceding the Old High German ‘Christmond‘, is November, then these events are not taking place in the northern hemisphere.  The European calendar’s ‘Wintermond’ isn’t an appropriate name for a mild November like this:

Now we have Nebelung, but what a Nebelung!  The grass ripens at a marvellous height, the baby animals gambol at their mother’s sides, the heavens are mild, the rain enriching, the sun warm.  Our gardens are places of praise.  Our houses are places of worship, our fields ring with the songs of scythe and reaper and our children’s songs of joy.  No fog or mist darkens our world, no ice bars our labours.  No snow falls.  We plan marriages and we harvest as we have sown. (p.1)

This is a 19th century German religious settlement in South Australia…

The murder-suicide leaves 15-year-old Benedict traumatised.  He finds the bodies, and races off to tell the community, but bizarrely, they leave him there, living in the barn, when he refuses to leave the scene.  The parson, Pastor Helfgott,  visits with gifts from the community so Benedict doesn’t starve, but he stays isolated on the property for the best part of a year, while the farm lies neglected and the ruins of the house lie untouched after he burnt it down.  The only creatures with which he seems to connect are his horses, his cat, and his mother’s chickens – but they suffer too.  The harsh winter is graphic in its cruelty: he had not prepared for it and he is marooned, filthy, hungry and cold in the freezing barn while Pastor Helfgott is unable to visit because of the torrential rains.

The community has its own problems too.  It was established by Pastor Helfgott’s charismatic father, as an enclosed and judgemental community.  They cast out ‘sinners’, and strangers are not welcome.  So in the course of a generation or so, there are ominous signs of inbreeding and of incestuous behaviour.  Helfgott realises also that the simple lifestyle envisaged by his father has been sabotaged by the flourishing farms.  The community is becoming wealthy, and they are starting to want more than their enclosed community offers.

None of this explains how a traumatised 15-year-old boy could have been left alone to exorcise his demons.  Passing Aborigines are kinder to him than his own community.  Any child experiencing the loss of both parents in circumstances such as these must have the most horrific flashbacks and dreams, and Benedict withdraws into a world where the horses are his consolation and hears the word of God through the fox that kills his chickens.

It’s harrowing reading, yet it’s beautiful too.  An extraordinary novel…

Author: Eva Hornung
Title: The Last Garden
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925498127
Source: personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books, $29.99

Available from Fishpond: The Last Garden


  1. I had to study Eva Hornung’s first novel, Hiam (1997) fifteen years ago. It won that year’s Vogel, but I had problems with it, with the road trip north which was meant to be a metaphor (i’m probably a geography pedant). Still, she seems to win lots of prizes.


    • Yes, I read Hiam too, and I wasn’t very keen on it. I re-read what I wrote about it in my journal tonight, and my younger self couldn’t see what the point of it was. So I’m interested to hear that it became a book required for study – finer minds than mine must have thought it worthwhile!


  2. I really liked Dog Boy, and I liked the first book of hers that I read when she was Eva Sallis. I think she’s one of those writers who’s not afraid to take uncomfortable subjects and tease them out.

    BTW The book won, I believe, this year’s biennial Adelaide Festival Award for Fiction – announced earlier this month?


    • Oh did it? There you go, #EpicFail another award that I missed entirely!


      • PS Sue, can you please let me have the URL for your review of The Choke? I’m not having any luck searching your blog (This is three weeks of ‘limited internet now with Telstra blaming the NBN and neither of them doing anything about it!) and I want to add it to my post about the ALS Gold Medal.


      • I try to keep a list of the major award winners each year in my sidebar. I was creating this year’s template a couple of weeks ago and realised that that award had probably been announced – and it had. There are several Adelaide Festival categories but the fiction is the one I record so I remembered it when I saw your post.

        It’s pretty hard to keep up with them all!


        • Oh, I’m never going to be as well organised as that! If Tony (from Messenger’s Booker) hadn’t given me the heads up, I would have missed these two altogether.
          There used to be a terrific website which specialised entirely in all the awards, but it seems to have vanished…


          • Yes there was one I know but I haven’t looked at or for it for a while. I’m not all that organised I have to say. I tend to update it sporadically during the year. I’m very much catch as catch can when it comes to awards. At the end of the year copy it into my awards page.


            • Just do the best we can… sometimes I think I could use a clone…

              Liked by 1 person

  3. […] The Last Garden by Eva Hornung (Text), on my TBR, see my review […]


  4. This book didn’t really resonate with me when I read it last year but my husband read it and enjoyed it a lot. I have to say I was surprised when it started getting shortlisted for prizes but I have obviously underrated it.


    • It seems a silly thing to say about a book that starts the way it does, but it’s slow to get started after that. And (a bit like Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread), it probably helps if you are interested in horses, which I’m not.
      But I think the theme of a religious community gone awry and losing touch with its purpose (i.e. professing love but not showing it when it’s needed) made me think of those god-botherers clutching their guns in America. And it also gives the lie to the idea that small rural communities look after their own. They’re not much different to their heartless city counterparts who hand over some money but are ‘too busy’ to do anything else.


  5. […] The Last Garden by Eva Hornung (Text), see my review […]


  6. […] Eva Hornung: The Last Garden (Text Publishing) see my review […]


  7. […] Eva Hornung’s The last garden (Text) (Lisa has reviewed) […]


  8. […] Eva Hornung: The Last Garden (Text Publishing) see my review […]


  9. […] Eva Hornung’s The last garden (Text) (Lisa has reviewed) […]


  10. […] Eva Hornung, The Last Garden see my review […]


  11. […] Eva Hornung, The Last Garden, see my review […]


  12. […] The Last Garden by Eva Hornung […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: