Leon Garfield Peter Hunt - Essay

Peter Hunt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[With The Pleasure Garden] Leon Garfield has produced another rich meal from his sub-Smollett/Hogarth/Dickens recipe, and as a heavily decorated thriller it is very impressive. The cameos and grotesques are all alive—the stay-makers, beggars, blackmailers, half-innocent urchins, the whores. But this time, his packed world is paralleled by an equally packed symbolism, centred on the microcosm of Mrs Bray's Mulberry Pleasure Garden with its masks, confessions, and dubious redemptions. Thus the Reverend Justice Young's search for a murderer is also a search for his own salvation; the trouble is that he often seems to be wading knee deep in symbols as well as red herrings.

Perhaps it is all too much of a good thing, for Mr Garfield's cleverness is also his Achilles' heel. His verbal dexterity does as much to create his atmosphere as do his scenes, and for most of the time it works well. Thus the noise of children on cellar steps "suggested that a small-sized hail-storm had got inside the house and panicked". But to say that "the revellers go out of the pleasure garden, out into the black garden of pain" is to go out into pretentiousness. It is not that the allegory is inappropriate, or that the ambivalence of everything (including, centrally, sex) is not well conveyed. It is more that Garfield is too insistent; his over-stressing of the cosmic leads to overwriting, almost to self-parody, so that episodes such as Martin Young's struggle with the flesh … collapse under the weight of biblical significance.

But at least Mr Garfield's clichés are his own, and on this showing he remains someone to set standards by. (p. 880)

Peter Hunt, in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), July 16, 1976.