Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys

I have been meaning to read something else by Helen Humphreys for a long time, since I first read The Frozen Thames, which remains a book that I love and will read again. Happily, the book club I am now leading (I have never even been to a book club meeting, and I am leading one now, so we'll see how that goes) was reading The Lost Garden this month and so I had to read it too. I'm glad I did, although it is one of those cases where I wonder if I would have liked this book better if I'd picked it up of my own accord. It's also one of those cases where I'm not sure I would have picked it up of my own accord at all, even though Geranium Cat's review certainly put it on my list, but I'm glad I did pick it up even if the timing wasn't optimal.

Gwen Davis is an horticulturalist working for the Royal Horticultural Society in London during the Blitz. She volunteers to take her skills out to Mosel, an estate far removed from London, where she will be heading a group of the Women's Land Army, growing vegetables for the war effort. She does this so she won't have to watch her beloved city be destroyed around her, but she is not terribly well-suited to the position, at least at first. This story is an extended set of musings on love and its forms, its pains, and its beauty. It's also about Gwen's journey into becoming whole; she seemed so fragmented and hollow at the start of the book, and she is changed by the end.

The language in which this story is told is often beautiful, so much so that it is sometimes distanced from real life. The dialogue in particular does not ring true, but it's not supposed to. As a narrator, Gwen puts a veneer on her memories for us, I think. The story it tells is somewhat indulgent, somewhat predictable. It may have been meant to be predictable -- I kind of feel like it was set up in such a way that I was supposed to know what happened pretty much from the beginning. I wonder, too, if I had read Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse, which figures prominently (Gwen is a big fan of Woolf) if I would understand more about the story than I do. I do have enough of an understanding of gardens that the flower and gardening references integral to the text worked very well for me. Interestingly, I didn't enjoy that aspect of this book as much as I expected to, given how much I love reading nonfiction about gardening. I haven't quite decided why that is yet. The writing in general is occasionally a little off-putting, almost too self-consciously poetic. Overall, though, I think it works.

If we get down to the fine grain, I don't think I can say I liked this book, although it certainly made an impression on me. I wasn't terribly fond of Gwen, particularly at the beginning, and that was certainly deliberate. She changes over the course of the novel to the point where I am glad I met her, glad I got to know her. She's still not entirely a comfortable character, but she's less prickly than she was in the beginning. She has a lot of baggage, does Gwen, and she doesn't carry it lightly.

I don't think it's a spoiler (but stop reading here if you don't want any hints)...

... to say that this is a terribly sad story. It's about the war, and there's not a lot of emotional good that comes out of a war. Though this is a story about love, it's not romantic, and the way the war is portrayed is not romantic in the least. And here, of course, is my big problem with this book: I don't like sad stories. I really don't. And I do avoid them pretty scrupulously. They make me unhappy and not in a cathartic way. I am a wimp about this, I know. (I have to read The Time-Traveler's Wife next, guys -- this is going to be a disaster. I don't think I can take two in a row.) A review blurb I found from NOW Magazine gets it right: "Emotional ache, fear, loneliness, Helen Humphreys evokes these sensations with unsettling clarity." Consider me unsettled. I do it to myself enough without reading books that do it to me.

And this, in the end, is why I didn't like this book so much; I think I could have appreciated the language and setting and the characters and the structure of the story, but I knew it wasn't going to end happily and I was right. It would have felt extremely incongruous for it to have ended happily; the entire book is tinged with a painful melancholy. But it was worth reading, and I do recommend it for people who aren't as wimpy as me about sad stories. Humphreys' writing does take some getting used to, but I have decided I like it, and am quite keen to try Coventry next time I feel like I need to make myself sad. Because that's also a war story, and chances are it's not going to end happily either.


Jodie Robson said...

It's almost a year since I read The Lost Garden, and it stays in my mind as a wistful, lyrical book that doesn't quite pull off what it set out to do, not least because Gwen isn't a very attractive character. Like you, I expected the gardening parts to convey more to me, and I found it odd that I couldn't really picture the garden, but had to make do with a sort of sub-Secret Garden sort of feeling about it. I stand by it as a worthwhile read though, despute its flaws.

Aarti said...

I think I would like this book based on the language- sometimes, I don't care so much about the story if the language is good :-)

Unknown said...

GeraniumCat - "a wistful, lyrical book that doesn't quite pull off what it set out to do"

That is exactly it. What a perfect way to describe this book. Gwen is so difficult, and it's hard (for me, anyways) to engage with a story on a deep level if I don't like the main character. But I feel the same -- it's a good book, if flawed.

Aarti - I often feel the same way! That's the reason I love Michael Ondaatje so much, although to be fair I think his stories hold up under scrutiny too. You can really tell that Humphreys is a poet in this book.