Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 26, 2019

In the Garden of the Fugitives, by Ceridwen Dovey

In the Garden of the Fugitives is the kind of book that offers insights that make you stop reading to reflect.  It’s destined to be one of my best books of the year.

As you can see here at the Readings review by Alison Huber Ceridwen Dovey won the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction in 2014 with her short story collection Only the AnimalsSo she was already on my radar when I bought the book, and I didn’t hesitate when the St Kilda library advertised her author talk with Lee Kofman two weeks later.

The talk began with a conversation about the cover.  Kofman though it was like a memento-mori with its images of decay, and she asked if Dovey thought it represented the novel.  Her reply was interesting: she said that before publication authors think that they will have creative control over their book, but that’s not how it happens.  Dovey was given a choice between two covers, (and you can see the covers of alternative editions at her website) but in the end the publisher listened to the sales team.  Men, apparently liked her choice, and women didn’t, and the sales team wanted to feminise the cover because women are the market.  Well, I do like the cover, but I struggle to see what it’s got to do with the novel, and I think it would be a pity if male readers were put off by it.  (And anyway, when did gendered book covers become a thing??)

This is the blurb:

Almost twenty years after forbidding him to contact her, Vita receives a letter from a man who has long stalked her from a distance. Once, Royce was her benefactor and she was one of his brightest protégées. Now Royce is ailing and Vita’s career as a filmmaker has stalled, and both have reasons for wanting to settle accounts. They enter into an intimate game of words, played according to shifting rules of engagement.

Beyond their murky shared history, they are both aware they can use each other to free themselves from deeper pasts. Vita is processing the shameful inheritance of her birthplace, and making sense of the disappearance of her beloved. Royce is haunted by memories of the untimely death of his first love, an archaeologist who worked in the Garden of the Fugitives in Pompeii. Between what’s been repressed and what has been disguised are disturbances that reach back through decades, even centuries. But not everything from the past is precious: each gorgeous age is built around a core of rottenness.

Profoundly addictive and unsettling, In the Garden of the Fugitives is a masterful novel of duplicity and counterplay, as brilliantly illuminating as it is surprising – about the obscure workings of guilt in the human psyche, the compulsion to create and control, and the dangerous morphing of desire into obsession.

The intimate game of words that they enter into is an email correspondence, both combative and confessional.  Royce is a benefactor because he can be: he is one of those breathtakingly rich Americans who can do anything they want to do.  And yet he is a loser: he stalks Kitty, the object of his obsession, but her passion is for a career in archaeology not for him.  He trails round after her as she undertakes ground-breaking research in Pompeii, refusing to accept it when she falls in love with someone else.  And after she dies, he then stalks Vita, who chooses a life that doesn’t include him or his money.

Vita, on the other hand, has a different kind of obsession, one which arises from the author’s own experience.  As Dovey explained, her early life was in apartheid South Africa, as one of a family of perpetrators.  Her first two books are an allegory (Blood Kin) and fables (Only the Animals) and they explore power and abuse.  However, she explained, she felt a kind of psychic block in confronting how to write about the past when she was the beneficiary of the abuse of other people.  She said that — as a White South African — she couldn’t find the words, when contemporary identity politics is about getting people of privilege out of the way so that other voices can be heard. 

Through the character of Vita whose creativity and imagination is stultified by her feelings of guilt as a White South African,  In the Garden of the Fugitives asks: does this mean that White South Africans, or Germans, or any other perpetrators of an evil, should silence themselves, from one generation to the next?  And should they decide to speak up, should we be willing to listen? For how long should penitence and blame endure?

Every person alive today is descended from a tribe that has at some stage in its history been both victor and vanquished.  So how far back do we take it?  One generation?  Two, three? Why not all the way back to the triumph of our species over other species of humans, whom some historians believe we may have systematically killed off?  Perhaps the Genesis story in the Bible is in fact a parable about this genocide.  We, Homo sapiens, took the ribs and bones of other human species we massacred to remake ourselves as the only humans. (p.261)

In America, Vita experiences the judgement of others at first hand, and she takes it to heart.  A fellow student sends an envelope containing nothing but a photograph —  a photograph from the 1976 Soweto uprising showing twelve-year-old Hector Pieterson’s dead body being carried by a man running from police, and besde him Hector’s sister, her face contorted with grief.  

I have kept that photograph, crenulated along its inside edge, to remind myself of the blow of being recognised for who I felt I really was, underneath my disguise as a good human being.  Somebody who, though not yet born in 1976, was still in some way responsible for that boy’s dead body. […] a veiled accusation: I see you.  I know where you come from, and what has been done in your name. (p.71)

Through the character of Magdalene, Vita’s Black counsellor, the book also challenges Australians to interrogate their own history of atrocities, and their attempts at reconciliation.

‘South Africa’s whites make up less than ten percent of the population, whereas America and Australia have populations that are overwhelmingly white.  The guilt felt by a small portion of  a large white majority can be indulged without much consequence; everybody knows that nothing is really going to threaten the status quo.  Even if genuine, it is the guilt of the victorious — the battle was won long ago.

‘White South Africans of our parents’ generation experience guilt or shame that is straightforward, textbook.  Their parents, your grandparents, invented a system to dominate a feared black majority, and they benefited from it for years.

‘Your guilt has a twist to it.  As children, your generation of whites saw that ancestral power being lost, handed over by your elders to that feared majority.  So you had everything to lose, unlike white Americans, white Australians.  In fact, you have lost almost everything, or you will soon — your power, your jobs, your money, the land you have owned.  You’ve paid the price for letting the majority rule, as it should.  Yet still you’re regarded as the worst culprits of all the whites in the world.’ (p. 260)

It’s food for thought.

Amongst the people I count as my friends, there is real distress about our country’s failures: our treatment of refugees; our failure to have a meaningful treaty with our First Peoples; our scandalous disregard for our Pacific neighbours facing catastrophe because of climate change; and our involvement in wars that fail the test of a Just War.  None of the people I know were or are involved in any of these ethical failures.  Yet, we feel guilt and shame, and impotent too, because no amount of activism or the expression of our will at the ballot box changes anything.

Sometimes when we travel, we too are made to feel the weight of an unwanted identity, in our case, most recently from New Zealanders whose disdain was palpable.  On three separate occasions, we were berated by complete strangers over matters for which we have no personal responsibility, but also no opportunity to absolve ourselves.  I wouldn’t equate this experience with what White South Africans or Germans experience, but it was certainly unpleasant and made us wary of telling people where we were from.  I didn’t need this book to remind me that most nations have shameful aspects in their history, but the complex ambiguities of this novel made me think deeply about questions of enduring culpability for them.

Theresa reviewed it too at Theresa Smith Writes. Other reviews are at the Sydney Review of Books; at the SMH and at The Guardian. What’s interesting about all of them, is how differently they approach the work, which just shows IMO how richly rewarding it is to read.

Author: Ceridwen Dovey
Title: In the Garden of the Fugitives
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Random House), 2018, 305 pages
ISBN: 9781926428598
Source: personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh $32.99

Available from Fishpond: In the Garden of the Fugitives


  1. A challenging read Lisa and it seems as more of our stories are being discovered or disclosed that none of us are given a clean report. I am filled with a kind of shame being a Scot who benefited from the imperialist project while also being a victim of it as well. It’s a complicated reality but it is important to face for deliberate ignoring of our past is an obstacle to any possibility of a better world which is something I am still reluctant to give up. On your review this is another one for summer reading. Thanks as always.


    • That’s exactly it, Fay. I think it’s really important to thrash out these issues in an open and honest way.


  2. I loved this book as well, and I reckon it will be in my top books of 2019
    I was so impressed by the complexity of the themes and yet it didn’t read as overly complex. Like you, I was left pondering the broader themes long after I had finished reading. Really thought it should have made the Stella list.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My quiet Stella prediction about this one died in the dirt! I love the way you say it is destined to be a book of the year for you. There’s a lot to appreciate in this one.


  4. The book should have been on multiple prize lists, and it wasn’t. I think those of us who’ve read it can guess the reason why and it has nothing to do with the worth of the novel.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What a fabulous review of this exquisite novel! Thank you for bringing it back to life for me and quoting some of its key passages.


    • Thanks, Annette, it’s good to hear from those who loved it too. I’ve hardly said a word about the quality of the writing, but you’re right its exquisite. Those scenes in Pompeii, and in the Cape Province vineyards are stunning.


  6. You, Kate & Theresa – I’ve been dithering around about reading this book, time to pull it out of the tbr pile!!
    I heard that Mudgee is featured in the story – is it a big part of it, or just a passing reference? I used to live there, which may be one if the reasons I’ve dithered. A little nervous about seeing a place I know do intimately in a book!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can’t remember it being a big part of it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mudgee is only a tiny part of the story.

        Liked by 2 people

        • That’s right, it’s not a big part of the story, the main action is in Pompeii and in the Cape Province of S. Africa. There’s also a little bit set in the US.

          Liked by 2 people

  7. I certainly agree about people of privilege getting out of the way. And I’m very unsure about the argument that everyone can be seen to have benefitted from conquest and opression. It reflects the Afrikaaners’ argument that they are (were) just the current victorious tribe, as the Zulus were before them.

    But yes we whites have and are benefitting and so our literature should reflect our acknowledgement of that. Something modern Germans seem to have done very well.

    Are book covers gendered? Do bears … in the woods?


    • Well, for me it depends. I think that labelling white people as ‘people of privilege’ on the basis of their skin colour or presumed experiences can be a kind of inverted racism. I don’t like identity politics because I take people as I find them and I judge them by what they do.

      The covers? Yes, I know. But when that did that happen? The marketing department hasn’t always had such sway, or had such an absurd result. What kind of stupid focus groups are they using?

      #MoreGenderedMarketing: I went to a new gynaecologist a couple of months ago because my previous one had retired. The ‘wellness centre’ (I kid you not) was all decked out in pink, from signage to décor to staff attire. Gynos by their very nature have a gendered clientele but #Feminism101 this was nauseating.


      • Don’t you hate it when your doctors retire? My GP is only 7 years younger than I am and will retire she has said in the next 5 years. I will be SO sad, because she takes women’s health, and particularly older women’s health, seriously.

        Anyhow, what can I say but that this is another book I need to read.

        I don’t like jargon terms like “identity politics” nor the term “political correctness”, so I don’t use them. They have become hi-jacked, when, in fact, they stand for some important values that have been taken away by those who want to undermine those values.


        • Well, we’ll have to disagree there. I think that what I understand identity politics to mean (which may well have originally meant something else) is now a way of making assumptions about people based on their presumed identity. And whether that takes the form of ‘all men are…’ or ‘all white people are…’ or ‘all CIS people are…’ it’s just as offensive as saying the converse, which is something I have never tolerated.
          That kind of negativity about people coupled with an implied assertion that they can’t ever learn or change because their identity is fixed is part of the generalised hatred that characterises a lot of contemporary public discourse and I don’t like it at all.


          • Oh, I don’t think we disagree in substance. I just feel that the term “identity politics” has been co-opted by naysayers to ensure that rather than talk about the fundamental issues of tolerance, respect and equality, we throw around terms like “identity politics” and “political correctness” which puts people in corners, gets hackles up, and shuts down conversation. This is why I refuse to use phrases like this that have become loaded. I don’t want to give then any air…


  8. Oops, I should have added that maybe co-opt is the wrong word, maybe the term has always been used in this negative way. That doesn’t change my point, in my mind anyhow (!), that the phrase is used willy-nilly to shut down conversation about those fundamental issues – and hence my refusal to use it.


    • Well, I think it’s a useful term to describe the nastiness of labelling people on the basis of their perceived identity rather than their behaviour. So, as I say, I (like Stan Grant, and Jeff Sparrow in books I’ve recently read) intend to go on using it.


      • Fair enough. I do understand your point. The thing is that I don’t hear Stan Grant using this phrase a lot, and I didn’t feel he used it a lot in his book – I was looking for it – but he does, I agree, talk about the problem of focusing on identity, and how excluding and negating it can be.


  9. […] In the Garden of the Fugitives by Ceridwen Dovey, see my review This artfully written novel follows a correspondence between an elderly philanthropist, Royce, and […]


  10. […] novel of Sydney author Ceridwen Dovey, whose fiction I discovered when I recently read and reviewed In the Garden of the Fugitives (2018). And it’s not just me who’s impressed: Blood Kin was published in 15 countries, […]


  11. […] In the Garden of the Fugitives, by Ceridwen Dovey […]


  12. […] would I like to die: In the Garden of the Fugitives, by Ceridwen […]


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