Much like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Robert Newton’s Mr Romanov’s Garden in the Sky opens with a murder. It’s a grisly scene: someone has taken a local dog and thrown it off the roof of the housing commission. We’re left with the mourning and grief of the slow, shuffling Mr Romanov, and the determination of young Lexie. So begins a story of hope, friendship, and redemption, that will follow the pair in the housing commission and beyond.
Lexie is a newcomer to the housing commission. Her life used to be charmed, and she has warm memories of her father and Surfer’s Paradise, a place she retreats to in her mind when things get tough. Since the death of her father, her mother has struggled. She can’t get out of bed, can’t hold down a job, and has turned to drugs to help numb the pain. Lexie is left to fend for herself. She wanders through the housing commission, taking money from her addled mother’s purse to buy food down at the local grocery store, and talks to her imaginary friend Miranda, a drawing on the fridge.
But after the terrible incident of the loss of Mr Romanov’s dog, Lexie finds herself connected to him in the strangest of ways. They’ve both experienced terrible loss, and they’re both more than a little lonely. They’re both strange – Lexie far too precocious for the kids of the housing commission, and Mr Romanov is called The Creeper by the community – and so it seems easy for them to connect, despite the generational gap. Mr Romanov has lived a long life. He’s lived in Russia, has both loved and lost a wife and a daughter, and finds himself alone in Melbourne. Lexie’s coming to him, then, is a godsend that both he and Lexie will learn and grow from.
The garden in the sky (or rather, on top of the building) becomes a place of hope and growth. With the help of Lexie’s friend Davey, a funny kid who likes facts more than fiction, and is a straight shooter, they work on helping Mr Romanov grow his garden. They plant flowers and vegetables, and find solace in the work, and the conversation between them. Slowly, life starts to look a little less lonely.
But even with their work with nature, Lexie is still trapped. She’s still in the housing commission, and she still has to deal with the realities of an absent mother and a dead father. So the three – Lexie, Mr Romanov, and Davey – escape. They go on a long drive from Melbourne to Surfer’s Paradise, a place that Lexie holds dear to her heart, a place she remembers and associates with her father. This roadtrip will prompt a nationwide search for the lost kids, panic, and stress – but it also prompts catharsis, friendship, love, and even more than that – it prompts healing.
Mr Romanov’s Garden in the Sky deals with heavy topics, to be sure. It deals with poverty, drug addiction, incarceration, and grief. But it’s still a book for young adults, ages twelve and up. Newton deals with these themes delicately, but he does not shy away from the hard stuff. It’s important for kids to think about these things – to learn from them, and Newton does so in a way that is educational, uplifting, and delicate. There’s humour, love, and friendship thrown into the mix, too, to lighten up the mood.
Ultimately, Mr Romanov’s Garden in the Sky is an essential read for kids entering their teenage years. Not just because it deals with the hard stuff. But because it comes out the other end with a message of love. This book will make you fall in love, laugh, cry, and feel like you’re moving on from your own grief, just as Lexie does with hers.