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Book Review – Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Kind of fitting that I’m writing this review right now as I’m really grumpy and pulling that southern belle bullshit card where you pretend you’re not super grumpy so as to not come off like a total bitch.

Can’t tell if it’s working or not. 

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil follows the eccentric lives of several Savannah natives and their dated, unchanging ways, as they try to make sense of a murder committed by a person they’ve all thought of, or known, as a friend. 

It’s delicious on a wicked level. The story moves along at this unimpressive pace, and it has you begging for a murder, for something nefarious to happen before you’ve bored to death. 

I can’t say whether or not my desire for something seismic to occur was ever truly satisfied. I wasn’t rocked to my core, that’s for sure. I was definitely rocked, but more thrown off than shattered into a million pieces. I wasn’t expecting some of the turns of events. I wasn’t expecting a large portion of the story, and that’s what kept me reading. Even though those shocking moments were few and far between, they were enough to have me flipping through the pages ready for another to catch me by surprise. 

The fact that this is a work of fiction and non-fiction makes it a really good story. I can’t say this story would’ve had nearly the impact it did as a known piece of biographical-fiction because it wasn’t earth-shattering. It was more curious. More, oh, no way, that actually happened? than anything else. 

The characters were all alive and bristling with boredom enough to act outrageously and recklessly in order to latch onto some kind of drama, and it definitely had me hooked. I wanted to be there with these characters as their worlds as they knew them collapsed. I wanted to see the detrimental effects and watch it push them into a corner they’d never been, to a place they’d never explored. 

But I didn’t really get that. I mean, if anything it’s sort of a testament to the time and its stubbornness. Filled with people who can’t stand to throw out the old in order to make room for the new, it’s hard to write old southern fiction without that timeless aspect that is–getting caught in their own ways. And so magnificently caught, you wonder what kind of growth they’ve made, if any at all. 

Our main characters were all evil and profound, deeply rooted in some kind of negativity, and eventually uprooted so cruelly, we, the readers, couldn’t believe they were still in motion. 

The story itself left a lot to be desired, but it also didn’t, if that makes sense. If it had been a work of straight fiction, I might have been more let down, but because it rings true to real events, it’s hard to feel anything but sort of taken aback, because things like this don’t happen, and if they do, no one tells the story quite like John Berendt, our author, does.

He’s a master of words, a great builder of eloquent sentences. Whenever I read a book, I always have pagemarkers nearby, because some sentences just deserve to be remembered, and I can’t imagine the last time I marked up a book as heavily as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Berendt took this story, this ugly, prejudiced story, and made it beautiful with his writer’s hand, and I felt utterly touched by his gracefulness. 

Serena thrived in this museum of her former self.

It was about that time, as I was attempting to fix my exact location in the universe, that I became aware of laughing voices and the sound of a honky-tonk piano coming over the garden wall.

Conversation subsided to a muted hum, and the sound of shuffling cards swept through the house like autumn leaves blowing across a lawn.

Minerva spoke in a faraway voice. It came from so deep within her that the words sounded as if they had been uttered eons ago on a distant planet and were just now reaching the earth through her.

The story was a quirky one. Paralyzing almost. You can’t make up this stuff, and the fact that our author didn’t, the fact that he played with real-life people and their real-life tragedies to make a work of fiction so poised and perfect made it an amazing read.

The characters were so odd, but they had that southern charm. And I enjoyed watching their ugly sides materialize as the pages turned. Their sparkles wore off, as they most certainly do with time, and they began to show their true colors. The astonishing cast of individuals displayed their worst sides right along their best, and it was nothing if not addicting. 

But our narrator felt a little flat. A little bored with it all. He had one glittering moment of pure affront when Chablis showed up at the black debutante ball with the potential to embarrass, but other than that, his emotions were kept far and away from the reader, and it felt a little unfair. 

It was built in the honor of a man named William Gaston. He was one of Savannah’s greatest hosts and party givers, and he died in the nineteenth century. This tomb is a memorial to his hospitality. It has an empty vault in it that’s reserved for out-of-towners who die while visiting Savannah. IT gives them a chance to rest awhile in one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world, until their families can make arrangements to take them away.

I like to think of this place as the scene of the Eternal Party.

Luther pasted the wing of a wasp on top of a fly’s own wings to improve its aerodynamics. Or he made one wing slightly shorter than the other so it would fly in circles the rest of its life.

Aiken’s name was inscribed on the bench, along with the words cosmos mariner, destination unknown.

“Thanks from the bottom of our interracial baby’s dead little heart!”

“The half hour before midnight is for doin’ good. The half hour after midnight is for doin’ evil.”

So, I guess for me, this book was good, but mainly because it was built on something true, the type of thing you rubberneck in bars to catch sight of as a young man leaves with an older woman, or on a plane, listening to a child scream and scream as the mother plays Candy Crush on her phone. It’s intriguing because it’s real life, and I doubt this book would’ve made it any other way. And if it had, it would’ve been the characters and the prose pulling it along, because the story isn’t there like I needed it to be. 

Put it this way: the vibes of the cover don’t exist in its following pages. And the story, which stretched onto infinity it sometimes felt, dragged to the finish line in order to stay true to its substance. Something that never would’ve happened if it were a true work of a fiction.



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