Book Review // Strange Eden

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Book Name: Strange Eden
Author: Gina Giordano
◐ Genre: Historical Fiction
◐ Pages: 454

◐ Synopsis (Goodreads):
Everything familiar to Eliza has been ripped away. Even worse, the cruel deed was done by her own hands. Nassau, Bahamas, 1791… Eliza Sharpe, recently wed to a mysterious and brooding soldier, departs for the West Indies with him to begin their new life. Once there, she realizes their marital arrangement is ill-fated and that she has made a disastrous choice. Charles, the man she finds herself bound to, is nothing short of a monster. On their very first night in New Providence, her innocence is irrevocably shattered. The walls of her new home hide a dark family secret, and Eliza realizes that the freedom she sought within marriage is a worse cage than the constraints she faced before. Eliza struggles with her new existence, her exposure to Charles’ explosive temper, the brutality of slavery, and her isolation as she tries to grow accustomed to life on distant shores. The only source of comfort she finds is swimming in the startlingly clear ocean, an activity Charles expressly forbids. As she attempts to flee her deteriorating situation, an unexpected encounter with a beguiling stranger named Jean offers a promise of escape. Despite the dark rumors that swirl around her recent acquaintance and his mysterious past, he captures Eliza’s interest, and ultimately, her heart―with deadly consequences. On an island where nothing is as it appears, Eliza is confronted with the harsh realities of living on the fringe of empire, of womanhood, and the overt corruption that festers in the governor’s mansion on the hill. Will she ever be able to secure her freedom―and possibly even find redemption in love?

Recommended for fans of adventure stories that are rich in history and description

Content Warning:
graphic depictions of rape and sexual assault, violence, blood, racism, slavery, public execution

Review: 4/5 ⭐
When I finished Strange Eden, I immediately texted the friend who had recommended it to me to demand compensation for my emotional damage.

This book is the first in a trilogy, which is good to keep in mind, since there were still a couple of plot points that had only been teased. Also important to note that the book ends on a major cliffhanger, so reader beware.

That said, I enjoyed this book. Despite its length, I finished it in three days (no easy feat with a newborn and a hyperactive five-year-old son). Every page speaks to Giordano’s dedication to historical accuracy, as she takes you from the shores of England to the Bahamas. Most of my favourite passages were of the rich descriptions of the island Eliza found herself in. The imagery is vivid and I was immersed in its beauty throughout; it became almost its own character to me.

Contrasted with the lovely scenery is the portrayal of an ugly part of the history: slavery. In that sense, the physical and historical setting tied well into the title of the book—in spite of the beauty and opulence that surrounds Eliza, it’s built upon the backs of her fellow humans. She witnesses the violence against slaves daily, as well as the dehumanising way others view them.

The entire novel is told through Eliza’s eyes (except for one small section, which was kind of jarring). While Eliza does fall into the not-like-other-girls and so-beautiful-but-doesn’t-know-it trope, it’s far less campy and irritating than other depictions I’ve read (looking at you, Lila Bard).

What I didn’t enjoy as much was the characters. While there was certainly an attempt at depth to them, most read as pretty flat to me and make nonsensical decisions. The governor of the island, Lord Dunmore, is a caricature of a corrupt, brutish man, driven by greed. His mistress is a shallow, one-dimensional character who blends in with all the other (unnamed) women to contrast with Eliza’s not-like-other-girls deal.

(Spoiler warning)

Another example of something that didn’t make sense was how easily Eliza falls in love with Jean and has sex with him, despite being consistently raped by her husband. I didn’t find it believable that a rape victim would engage in sexual relations with someone so easily.

Charles is introduced as a mysterious, taciturn character, who quickly embodies the kind of man women would have nightmares about. He has archaic views on women and blacks, and brutalises both as his property. There are hints of a tragic childhood, and of a completely different man, had circumstance not left him jaded. Other than that, there’s not much to him.

I realise that we’re meant to adore Jean for his chivalry and liberal ways of thinking, but he was even less interesting to me than the other two, despite having the most plot mystery around him. That said, I was still sad when he died; I would have liked to explore his character more.

(End of spoiler)

The author is a master storyteller. She weaves this plot of deception, mystery, romance, and betrayal with deftness and skill. Except for a slight lull in the middle, she kept my attention for the whole 400-some pages—quite impressive considering the reading slump I’ve been in this year. This is one of those books that make you forget you’re reading.

What I found most skillful was the way Giordano challenges the reader through Eliza’s perspective. From ignorance about the injustices she unknowingly benefits from, she’s jolted awake by the reality of the system that allows her such luxuries. Meanwhile, the people around her continually fail to recognise these same atrocities.

You’re left to wonder what kind of character you are and will be when faced with similar inequalities existing today, and whether you will do something about it, or continue in the same privileged ignorance Eliza was surrounded with.

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