- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 12, 2003

By Helen Humphreys
Norton, $23.95, 183 pages

Fictional gardens come trailing clouds of glory from the storied gardens of the past: from the Garden of Eden, the paradise that we have lost, and from those medieval gardens that nurtured the yearnings of courtly love; and, course, from that myriad of country-house gardens where croquet on the lawn, tattle at the tea-table and strolls among the roses spelled joy or disaster to the denizens of so many English novels. Such a history warns that while gardens delight the senses, they also deliver some of the sterner lessons of life.
So it is with the garden of Helen Humphrey's elegiac novel, "The Lost Garden." It lies concealed in the grounds of Mosel, a remote estate taken over by the British government in the early days of the World War II. The house is home to a battalion of Canadian soldiers awaiting dispatch to the front. The overgrown gardens are the domain of Gwen Davis, who is training a group of young women enlisted in the Land Army to grow potatoes.
Gwen has left London the city she adores because she cannot stand watching German bombs destroy it. Mosel lies far from the blitz, and Gwen believes that if she can get its gardens going again, she can create a homesteading haven for her little army of agriculturists while providing vegetables for the war effort. She does not start out well, however. She arrives late, and so she has to turn her charges' attention from the charms of the Canadians to the challenges of potato growing. She is not good at this, lacking both the self-confidence of Jane, who has become the de facto leader of the group, or the genial commonsense of Captain Raley, who commands the Canadians.
More seriously, she is often obtuse, choosing to identify the women under her command by potato varieties, for example, rather than learning their names, and agreeing only reluctantly to arrange Saturday night dances where they can meet the soldiers.
Yet at 35, Gwen herself longs for love, even spending nights lying under a two-volume encyclopedia of roses to discover what it might be like to sleep with a man. This longing is manifest in the garden she discovers tucked between the orchard and an overgrown yew hedge. Considering the unusual selection of flowers and shrubs, Gwen, a highly-trained horticulturalist, notes, "For everything that was chosen, others would have been eliminated or passed over." Its creator must then have wanted to convey a message.
Pondering this, Gwen concludes that the first garden bed signifies longing, while the second, a froth of peonies whose heads inevitably will crash to the ground, represents loss. The third bed,filled only with a Sweet Briar rose, represents faith. Mosel's lost garden is then a garden about longing for love and enduring its loss.
But who planted it? And when and why? And how was it forgotten? As Gwen researches the origins of the garden, she is falling in love with Raley. She is also learning about the meaning of love from Jane, who is smart and kind, but most significantly, entirely focused on her fiance, a pilot missing in action. But the more Gwen learns, the darker her vision. "Each loved thing slips away. There is no stopping it," she decides. Moving forward is not progress but a repetition of the past. At Mosel that past is World War I, when the garden was established. "This is a ghost story," she realizes. "And we have somehow become the ghosts of these young men who worked this estate before the Great War. The living are the dead."
This tale of a lost garden is thus more than sad; it is steely in its presentation of war as a process of physical and emotional desertification. Mrs. Humphreys brings this abstraction to life with great skill. Her language is beautifully vivid. Take Gwen's description of what she loves about London, "Its wild lovely clutter … . Small streets that twisted like rivers. Austere stone cathedrals. The fast muddy muscle of the Thames, holding the city apart from itself; the tension of that moving gap, palpable, felt." Almost literally, we can see this London, and see it destroyed as "Houses become holes. Solids become spaces. Anything can disappear overnight."
Similarly, Mrs. Humphreys shows that war subverts trust and confidence and hope the inner landscape of the mind in metaphors realized as brilliant scenes. There is the lost garden where Gwen sits and ponders meaning and the race of albino foxes that seem always to have lived at Mosel. The foxes flit by like ghosts, like the haunting presence of Virginia Woolf, a victim of the war who is never far from Gwen's mind. Even glimpses into a happier world are emblematized as pictures drawings on the blackout blinds that shroud the windows or photographs of a woman in Newfoundland wearing sweaters knitted for her by one of the Canadian soldiers.
These images, realized so gracefully, make "The Lost Garden" rewarding, best read not as an evocation of World War II, which often seems to be simply an historical setting, but as a tale of longing, loss and the power of creativity. Perhaps it is also a tale of the power of love, though if so, it is love as a sustaining ideal, not love as we know it from happy endings.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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