At the beginning of the book, Tom's brother is ill with the measles. To protect him from catching the disease, his parents send Tom to stay with his aunt and uncle in their small flat in the city. This is a drastic change for Tom, who is used to spending hours in the garden behind his family's large house. His aunt and uncle do not have a garden; in fact, there is not even a yard. Several scenes take place inside the flat or elsewhere in the spacious old house that has been subdivided into smaller flats, but most of the action takes place in the mysterious garden that appears after dark. This elusive garden, Tom eventually learns, actually existed some fifty years earlier but it has since been paved over and is used to store garbage cans.
Tom's Midnight Garden is a superb work of literature. The captivating style ranges from poetic suggestiveness to colloquial conversations. The descriptions of the garden are concrete and vivid, and the author's keen eye for detail enables her to describe objects, such as the ancient grandfather clock, in a way that gives them a graphic immediacy. As a symbol, the clock's uneven performance suggests both the exactness of timekeeping and the elusiveness of relative time. It is fitting that Mrs. Bartholomew, who spans the past and present, is the one who always winds the clock.
The garden setting, with its strong allusions to the innocence and perfection of the biblical Garden of Eden, gives a mythic dimension to the story. When the tree in the garden is struck by lightning and falls, it symbolizes both the destructive aspect of time and the fall of humans from divine grace and innocence. The gardener, who is named Abel, strengthens the biblical allusiveness of the setting.
One subtle feature of the novel is the subtle change in prose style from the beginning to the end. The final chapters display greater control and more maturity in both content and linguistic cadences. The evolution of style mirrors the maturation of Tom over the course of the narrative. There are moments in the garden when time seems to have stopped, but Tom has been developing in his understanding.
Aers, Lesley. 'The Treatment of Time in Four Children's Books." Children's Literature in Education 2 (1970): 69-81. The novel is discussed in the context of other children's books concerned with the theme of time.
Cameron, Eleanor. The Green and Burning Tree: On the Writing and Enjoyment of Children's Books. Boston: Little, Brown, 1969. Based on a lecture, a chapter of this study deals with time fantasies written for young adults.