The Swan Garden

Fiction - Drama
384 Pages
Reviewed on 12/03/2018
Buy on Amazon

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    Book Review

Reviewed by Kim Anisi for Readers' Favorite

In The Swan Garden by Anne Biggs, readers are introduced to Alice, who is sent to a mother-baby home by her parents because they don’t want to deal with a pregnant daughter. The pregnancy was not planned, nor did it happen because she carelessly slept with someone she loves without protection. It happened because she was assaulted and raped on her way back home. But everyone, especially the sisters in her new “home,” thinks that Alice must have done something to actually MAKE the rapist rape her. Alice’s life turns into a hell of verbal and physical abuse. People in power do what they want to whomever they want. We follow Alice as she gives birth, loses her daughter and is sent to a laundry home to work off the debt her parents refused to pay. I don’t want to give away too much, but readers spend a lot of time with Alice until she grows into an old woman. It is a life full of challenges, and the story of an extraordinary woman.

I was pleasantly surprise by the quality of the writing of The Swan Garden by Anne Biggs. It is the kind of writing that makes it easy to be drawn into the story, and to imagine how the world the characters live in looks like. There is a fine line between describing too much and too little. Anne Biggs found the golden mean. Her characters come to life on the page; the good, the bad, and the ones who can’t be put into any of these categories. I wasn’t a fan of some of Alice’s decisions, but you never meet characters that always do what you want them to do. I guess, it would also be a bit boring! Alice is quite different from me, so I never quite knew what she’d do next, and that added to the enjoyment of the story. I don’t often read books outside the fantasy, sci-fi and horror genres, but for some reason this book caught my attention, and kept it for every single page of every single chapter. So I really don’t hesitate in giving this a five star rating!

Viga Boland

If you’re a fan of non-fiction, you’re most likely someone who agrees that truth is indeed stranger than fiction. So, when a book of fact-based fiction is as well-told as The Swan Garden by Anne Biggs, you find yourself believing what you’re reading actually happened to the characters who populate the pages. The Swan Garden follows the decades-long life of Alice Leary in the Ireland of the 1950’s, who had the misfortune of being raped on her way home from school. So typical of parents, even today, who do not believe a daughter’s account of how she became pregnant, and are more concerned with the shame she has brought upon her family, Alice’s father sends her off to Castlepollard, a home for unwed mothers.

Abandoned by her family and subjected to physical, mental and sexual abuse, like many of these young women, Alice dreams of escape and one day finding the baby that was taken from her. Through Alice’s eyes, readers learn of the hell-like existence such young women, considered sinners, endured in these homes and the laundries where they worked, some for their entire lives, after their babies were taken away from them to be adopted. These homes were run and ruled by Catholic nuns. Some readers might be offended by the depiction of the cruelty of these nuns, and in Alice’s case, of the Monseigneur who conducted masses, heard their confessions, absolved them of their sins and in secret satisfied his own lust.

The Swan Garden will keep you turning pages, wanting to think it’s all just fiction. Yet, if you do a Google search on Castlepollard and the Magdalene Laundries, you will learn that “At least 10,000 women and girls are believed to have passed through the laundries between independence from Britain in 1922 and the closing of the last one in 1996.” Furthermore, such an abusive system endured for 231 years! How did such a system last so long? “To start with, any talk of harsh treatment at the Magdalene laundries and mothers’ homes tended to be dismissed by the public, since the institutions were run by religious orders. Survivors who told others what they had been through were often shamed or ignored. Other women were too embarrassed to talk about their past and never told anyone about their experiences. Details on both the inmates and their lives are scant.”

Those feelings of shame, embarrassment and the need to keep her secret hidden, even from the loving husband and children that Alice eventually has, drive the plot of The Swan Garden. Unless you are totally insensitive, you cannot come away from this novel unmoved by what you read. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself wanting to know more about these mother and children homes, and what went on inside them. These are the truths that are stranger and more horrific than fiction could ever be.

K.C. Finn

The Swan Garden is a darkly dramatic work of fiction written by author Anne Biggs. With graphic scenes of rape and assault, even from the first pages, this will not be a book for the faint hearted, but the wider story of what happens to central heroine Alice Leary is one of realistic struggles, triumphs and mysteries in life. After Alice is raped and falls pregnant at only fourteen, she is forced to sign her baby away and is sent to the Magdalene Laundry to work, where she suffers even more abuse. But despite this, Alice learns to love again as an adult, and it is only after she loses her husband that she dares to try to reconnect with the baby she was forced to sign away so very long ago.

For those who can stand to see humanity at its very worst in the scenes of merciless abuse, the rest of this gripping and fantastic tale brings home the power of a woman’s inner strength with a surprisingly hopeful message. Letting loose the darker side of life, Anne Biggs writes beautifully and tragically at the same time, encapsulating all of the emotional possibilities of the human condition. Her dialogue and descriptions bring the beauty and poverty of Ireland to life in living colour, painting a portrait of a life recovered from the edge of sanity, only to be forever broken as Alice searches for that which was taken from her. Overall, I’d definitely recommend The Swan Garden as a powerhouse of drama.