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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Kensington Gardens

by
Rodrigo Fresán


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Kensington Gardens



Title: Kensington Gardens
Author: Rodrigo Fresán
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 370 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Kensington Gardens - US
Kensington Gardens - UK
Kensington Gardens - Canada
Kensington Gardens - Deutschland
  • Spanish title: Jardines de Kensington
  • Translated by Natasha Wimmer

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Our Assessment:

B+ : excessive, but well done

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 29/11/2004 Alexandra Kedves
The Guardian . 1/7/2006 Jerome de Groot
The Independent . 1/9/2005 Michael Eaude
The Nation . 3/7/2006 Christine Smallwood
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 20/11/2004 Markus Jakob
The NY Times Book Rev. . 17/9/2006 Jenny Diski
The Observer . 23/7/2005 Alberto Manguel
The Spectator . 11/6/2005 Philip Hensher
The Village Voice . 14/7/2006 Phyllis Fong
The Washington Post A- 10/8/2006 Elizabeth Hand
Die Welt . 5/2/2005 Wieland Freund


  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, but some very impressed (at least by aspects of it)

  From the Reviews:
  • "Rodrigo Fresán hat sich durch den viktorianischen Schriftsteller und sein Theatermonster zur Schöpfung eines schillernden Romanmonsters verführen lassen. (...) Das alles ist klug choreographiert, gekonnt einstudiert, meisterlich konstruiert. Aber gleichzeitig so künstlich wie der Name Peter Hook. (...) Ein schimmerndes, ein schlaues Buch." - Alexandra Kedves, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Sections are really quite spectacular, and the novel fizzes with ideas and energy. However, ultimately, it is unclear quite what one is meant to make of it all, and the conclusion simply evaporates." - Jerome de Groot, The Guardian

  • "It is a generous, rambling novel that owes a great deal to the magic-realist tradition, with its interlinked stories, improbable events and exaggerated coincidences. Full of allusions, wordplay and jokes, it must have been a nightmare to translate, and Natasha Wimmer's version is excellent. (...) Kensington Gardens is a book you will adore for its ingenuity and energy and its zest for language -- or hate for its self-indulgence." - Michael Eaude, The Independent

  • "Bouncing among Victorian England, the swinging '60s of Hook's childhood and the present, Fresán beautifully and grandly captures the mind of a madman who's caught in an all-too-ordinary dilemma: A little boy who didn't want to grow up, Hook has now become something much more monstrous than an adult." - Christine Smallwood, The Nation

  • "Although he has done his research -- obsessively, judging from the long bibliographic note at the end of the novel -- Fresán has rightly depended on the power of the imagination to create the landscape of such extraordinary times (.....) Kensington Gardens, which has received a hypnotically readable translation from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer, is written in a lyrical and embittered prose that seems to dance in delight at the ideas it is building into marvellous neo-Gothic structures." - Jenny Diski, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Fortunately, Fresán has not set out merely to chronicle, under the cloak of fiction, Barrie's intriguing life. (...) Rather than a single narrative, Kensington Gardens is an interweaving of many stories." - Alberto Manguel, The Observer

  • "Kensington Gardens, plotless and perorating with the repetition of dreams and the ego at the helm, is in the end too much of a game." - Phyllis Fong, The Village Voice

  • "(T)his extraordinary novel, Rodrigo Fresán's brilliant, maddening phantasmagoria, Kensington Gardens. (...) Fresán's tour de force is even more impressive when one considers the reams of print and celluloid devoted to Barrie, and how difficult it is to find something new to say about the diminutive Scot's supremely strange, melancholy life. Alas, Fresán's ambitious narrative ploy results in way too much authorial doodling." - Elizabeth Hand, The Washington Post

  • "Fresáns Roman ist ein Irrlicht, er schwankt zwischen Erzählung, Essay und Biographie, hat sich bei Borges die Vertracktheit geborgt, und das Buch wäre zeitgemäß, wenn es die postmodernen Spielchen bleiben ließe. (...) Ein bemerkenswert garstiges Buch." - Wieland Freund, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Kensington Gardens is narrated by the writer of an enormously (on a Harry Potter-scale) successful series of children's books centred around a boy named Jim Yang whose 'chronocycle' allows him to essentially bicycle through time. Written under the pen-name of 'Peter Hook', the author isn't so much obsessed by Peter Pan as by his creator, J.M.Barrie, and the novel unfolds as a dual-biography of Barrie and Hook. Hook is a storyteller, and in this case he also has an audience -- a captive audience, as it turns out: he is recounting these stories to child-actor Keiko Kai, who plays Jim Yang in the movie Hook has finally allowed to be made. But while Keiko Kai is being addressed by the narrator, the boy isn't a very active participant: he's there to listen, and Hook's account is one long confessional monologue.
       Hook's birth coincided with Peter Pan's death -- 5 April, 1960, when Peter Llewelyn Davies, the 'real' Peter Pan committed suicide. And there are other similarities that make Hook see his own life as Barrie's doubled-over, including a brother (and mother's favourite) who died in childhood.
       Hook's father was Sebastian "Darjeeling" Compton-Lowe who had a band -- "the Beaten aka the Beaten Victorians aka the Victorians" -- and was perhaps best known for his "nearly demented -- but very funny -- hatred of the Beatles". Mom was Lady Alexandra Swinton-Menzies. His parents are instrumental in making him who he becomes, but it's a complex relationship -- further complicated by the boating accident that took the father's life and most of the mother's mind. But they were a part of the London 1960s, and so Hook was exposed to everything (including, accidentally, LSD) and seemingly everyone. (Fresán is very good in suggesting the famous and the times, but he does indulge in an awful lot of name-dropping.)
       There are several major themes explored in the novel, and not surprisingly childhood is one of the central ones. In one of his books Hook has his hero meet the Peter Pan-author, where:

Jim Yang and Barrie theorize about the nature of childhood. Jim Yang can't grow up and Barrie doesn't want to grow up. They're complementary opposites.
       Hook obviously has issues -- and admits, for example:
     Childhood was invented by adults. Childhood can only be appreciated from adulthood, so all children's books are nothing but more or less desperate exercises in nostalgia and revenge.
       He's only slowly realised that his own efforts are hardly healing creations either. This narrative is also recounted to a child, but is hardly what could be called a 'children's book' (as is suggested by the fact that Keiko is apparently not a very willing participant in the proceedings) -- but Hook can't simply unburden himself to an anonymous (or adult) audience. Of course, Keiko also has the misfortune of being Jim Yang incarnate, and Hook must deal with his fictional alter ego if he wants to confront all his issues. The telling of these tales is cathartic -- but, inevitably, also self-destructive (and whatever happens to Hook, he has to take Jim Yang (i.e. Keiko) with him ...).
       The book is also about artistic creation, as Hook is clearly fascinated by the way Barrie tried to reshape inadequate reality in his books (using real-life boys and making them into characters). His own writing is ostensibly more fantastical, Jim Yang a true invention, but he has to admit:
Jim Yang scares me. I'm terrified by the effect he's had on the behavior of young readers, of those fans who wait for each book as if it's their salvation. And I'm even more terrified by the way Jim Yang has gradually devoured my life and past.
       The contrast in times -- the Victorian age and after, and the 1960s -- is also effectively used, as Hook also claims:
we're never born in the era that suits us best. All of us are lost, in one way or another.
       He certainly is, and while telling his life-story certainly explains a lot it doesn't make it much easier for him to make do in the modern world.
       Fresán piles a great deal into the book -- including most of Barrie's life. It's a lot to take, and to take in -- and the fact that Fresán's Barrie is only very similar to the actual Barrie, but not entirely true to life doesn't make things much easier. The heaping of biographical detail, both Hook's and Barrie's, can overwhelm at times, but it is admittedly also what ultimately makes the books so powerful. Fresán does pull it off, for the most part, convincingly creating these two characters and the defining episodes in their lives (and the colourful rush of history around them).
       Ambitious, playful, very well put together, Kensington Gardens is an impressive riff on quite a few subjects. If anything, Fresán simply does too much, leaving the book feeling denser and heavier than it really is. Still: worthwhile.

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Links:

Kensington Gardens: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Rodrigo Fresán was born in Argentina and now lives in Spain.

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© 2006-2008 the complete review

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