XXY Reads: Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce

XXY Reads: Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce

Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden is one of those books that once read, leaves you furious with the realisation that you will now have to re-enter the real world.

As the globalisation and digitalisation of our world progresses, the darkness of the human condition is becoming more and more ubiquitous in our everyday lives and the public consciousness. Once in a while, you just need a little escapism from the bleakness of reality. But unfortunately, because the creatives of our generation are as frustratingly truthful as they are astutely perceptive, the majority of our entertainment consists of art that imitates life. Whether it be drama or comedy, TV or film (or the myriad of alternative mediums now available), we are currently of a culture where it is pretty impossible to escape from some form of reflection on real-life circumstances.

As always, literature – particularly classic children’s literature, in this instance – is a welcome and wonderful respite from the mainstream. It uniquely manages to accommodate a place to purge and vent. But it balances that notion within whimsically indulgent conceit set in fictional worlds. There is an incomparable pleasure that only children’s literature can provide us with, as the narratives conjure a protective shield around the reader from the chaotic world outside.

The enchanting plot and endearing characters in Tom’s Midnight Garden are certainly as exciting and memorable as an amusement park experience, intertwining equal parts adventure, mystery and fantasy. And for adults (as I barely and still, unfortunately, am), it also includes an incredibly heart-breaking sense of nostalgia. 

In the beginning, we are introduced to the young Tom, whose holiday starts off very disappointingly. His brother has measles, which means Tom is forced to go and live with his uncle and aunt, where he is cooped up in one room all day. Pearce plants seeds of fantastical intrigue in the description of a grandfather clock that Tom becomes enamoured with. Then, due to his lack of movement during the day, he ends up having trouble sleeping at night. In his insomnia, he suddenly notices that the clock seems to be striking thirteen – and so a spark for nightly exploration is ignited.

Tom’s nocturnal surveying of the house finally leads him to the backyard. He opens the back door and somehow steps into an awe-inspiring garden that is clearly not part of the world he is familiar with. When he looks back to the hallway, it has completely disappeared and changed to fit the new surroundings. This leaves Tom in a different world with more to explore and play with than he ever believed possible. Just as he starts to think it is a dream, he hears the clock strike again and rushes back to the hallway to find it changing back to his aunt’s house.

Unlike an adult who may have lost their mind trying to make sense of it, Tom is, of course, ecstatic and resolves to come back the next night to explore further. As he returns night after night, he discovers one mystery after another, making a surprising and unique friendship along the way.

Pearce’s writing in Tom’s Midnight Garden evokes intrigue and emotion like few others. I caution people to not underestimate it by dismissing it as a mere children’s book (although there is nothing wrong with reading children’s books!). The amount of feeling that this story provokes ought to raise its profile as a novel, as its accessibility for readers of different ages is remarkable. As a reader, I feel charmed and jealous of the characters’ adventures; as an aspiring writer I feel inspired and jealous of Pearce’s creation; and as a former child, I feel nostalgic and, again jealous, of Tom’s experience.


Written by Ishrat Ahmed,


Visuals by Paul Perelka