Helen Humphreys

"The Lost Garden"

(Reviewed by Karma Sawka JAN 01, 2003)

The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys
The Lost Garden is a tiny little package of a novel in which human emotion and need are characters in World War II England. Londoner Gwen Davis is transported from her position with the Royal Horticultural Society to the quiet Devon countryside to supervise a group of Land Army Girls in their work at cultivating potatoes on the grounds of a large estate.

Gwen is clearly a lonely woman, never having experienced love of any sort. Throughout the story, Gwen longs for human contact: emotional and physical. Her mother's perfection and aloofness planted the seeds for Gwen's feelings of inadequacy and isolation from girlhood. "My mother was beautiful. I was always plain. 'How could I have produced such a creature?' she said more than once. Some days she locked me outside because she couldn't bear to look at me. I played in the gardens, among the flowers of white and blue - the same colours my mother liked to wear. I would chase after her in the house sometimes, anxious when she left a room without me."

Her character, in her humbleness and honesty about the desire for love and the emptiness of loss, appears naked to the reader, absolutely without pretension or defense. As an adult, Gwen seeks comfort in her knowledge of flora and in the weight of her massive volume of Ellen Willmott's Genus Rosa, which she sets on top of her chest and imagines is the weight of a lover. She holds on to the smallest snippet of a memory of a drunken coworker's pass at her at a company party.

At first, the Land Army Girls resent Gwen's presence in their little world, a place where they can temporarily forget about the war and spend their free time entertaining a troop of servicemen staying at the house up the lane. Gwen knows neither how to pull them together nor how to lead them; her qualifications come less from leadership skills and more from her lab work with diseased turnips. But our solitary girl, gradually learning how to maneuver around people, makes connections with two on the estate who will change her life forever.

The mystery of the lost garden of the title ties the story together with themes of love, loss and faith. Many of the characters are missing a loved one because of the war and are trying to keep faith that they will be reunited. In Gwen's case, of course, she is keeping faith that someday she will experience love outside of the love of a gardener for her shoots and blooms. Jane, Gwen's Land Army friend, holds on to the idea that her fiancé, missing in action, will not be lost forever. Captain Raley, the leader of the troop up the hill, nearly makes a connection with Gwen as she helps him grieve over the loss of a dear friend.

Immediately, I observed and was impressed by Humphreys' poetic language. Indeed, Humphreys is an award-winning poet and has four books of poetry under her belt. Her writing style is both tight and visual. In single, well-crafted sentences, the author elicits an instant sensual response from the reader.

Virginia Woolf fans will appreciate Gwen's obsession for the British author who mysteriously disappeared in the midst of the war. Gwen swears that she caught a glimpse of Woolf in London a few years ago, and ever since has been drafting a letter in her mind to her favorite author. Her "Dear Mrs. Woolf" mental letters serve our protagonist the way prayer or a diary - or conversation with a dear, trusted friend - would work for someone who had one. When Gwen reads in the newspaper that Woolf's body was found drowned in the River Ouse, she knows that the letter will never be sent. With few interactions with people to draw on, Gwen relates instead to her readings of Woolf's books, especially To the Lighthouse. Naturally, it can be assumed that Gwen is attracted to Woolf's writing about the female experience, since she has so little experience with men.

Although this book is a tiny one and can be read relatively quickly, its allure is found in the simple and genuine human qualities of the characters as they deal with life during a war. Without being depressing, whiny or overly romantic, this story allows its characters to ask questions about love, loss and faith as their lives are turned upside down.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 15 reviews

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About the Author:

Helen HumphriesHelen Humphreys is the author of Afterimage and Leaving Earth, both chosen as Notable Books of the New York Times. Afterimage won the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and Leaving Earth, published in seven countries,won the 1998 City of Toronto Book Award. Humphreys has also written four volumes of poetry. Her poetry, short stories and articles have appeared in numerous magazines, including The Malahat Review, Quarry, Event, Poetry Canada Review, The Fiddlehead Review, Grain, Arc and The New Quarterly.

She lives in Kingston, Ontario.

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