Life in the Garden
Written by Penelope Lively
Review by Jarad Johnson
Recently, gardening has become a hobby and interest of mine. However, it’s winter, and I cannot indulge myself by actually being out in my garden in these cold months, so I have turned to books until spring arrives. This book I picked up recently on a whim because it combines gardening and literature, two things that I’m passionate about. In it, the author not only describes her personal experience with gardening, but also broadly discusses how gardens and plants are used as themes in literature. I found myself looking at this book in two different ways, from the perspective of a reader and from the perspective of an (amateur) gardener.
As a reader, I found myself thinking back to all the gardens that had appeared in the books I read, and what purpose they served. The most obvious example of a garden in literature is The Secret Garden, a book I read in the long-ago time of childhood, also mentioned in the book. I actually remember where I was and what I was doing when I read this book, which is a happy side effect of influential novels, I suppose. It was during the summer, or at least the warmer months, and I was sitting on my aunt’s leather couch. At the time I was nine years old, and I remember wanting to go back to my own house and find some secret alcove just like the garden I was reading about. I believe I thought it would be the perfect place to read, since the house I was in was rather noisy. This garden evoked secrecy, solitude, and a sense of being forgotten, all themes which tie back to the book itself. Furthermore, sometimes it’s not a whole garden that serves as a metaphor, but a flower or plant can be used to set the scene. Subtle things like this can go largely unnoticed by the reader, but once you start looking for it, it’s everywhere.
As a, “gardener” (a title which I feel gives me an aura of expertise that I assure you is not at all present), I was hastily writing down plant names I didn’t recognize; the one I remember the most is the kniphofia, or red hot pokers, which I believe the author said were in Virginia Woolf’s garden, and which now must be in my own garden. Such is the consequence of reading about gardens in the winter. I now have a full-on case of gardener’s greed.
I was also motivated to research many of the authors’ gardens that she described, not only for inspiration but also to see how gardens matched writing styles. I have found myself thinking that gardening and writing are very similar activities, in the sense that they are both curated works. Both a novel and a garden to not occur by happenstance. Particular sentences and plants are selected to produce the end result. I used to be surprised by myself that I was so into gardening (something I thought would never be of interest to me at one time) but given the previous sentences its not really so much a shock now.
Overall, I would say of the book that is worth the read, whether you’re someone whose been gardening for a long time or someone just beginning. To read this book is neither rushed nor bogged down; it feels like an unhurried conversation, a leisurely picnic in the countryside, or an afternoon in a magical, secret garden.
Jarad is the co-administrator and writer for Sacred Chickens, attends college at MTSU, loves tea, and tries to spend every spare second reading. Jarad is an English major. Bless his heart! Let's all light a candle for him and send him happy thoughts!