When we first meet The Lost Garden's protagonist, Gwen Davis, she is heading to Paddington Station to catch a train to Devon. She describes herself as "a thirty-five year old woman with plain features" and assumes that we might think, perhaps because of her age and plain looks, that she knows nothing of love. Gwen does love something, though. She loves London where she has made her home for the past ten years working for the Royal Horticultural Society.
It is 1941 and Gwen wants to be useful to the war effort; the garden at Mosel is in need of some leadership. Her decision to head to the Devon countryside isn't totally altruistic; she can no longer bear the destruction of London, her beloved city. It's the first clue that Gwen, despite her prickly exterior, is a woman who feels deeply. She doesn't know how to live in this London, a city that has been reshaped by the Blitz.
"I cannot continue adapting to the destruction of the city. London is burning now," she remarks as her taxi hurtles towards the train station.
Gwen is a sympathetic character. In her New York Times book review, novelist Margaret Livesey describes her as "awkward and tactless, a passionate gardener, a great reader, a terrifically observant narrator -- a frustrating but believable woman."
Gwen doesn't quite know how to interact with people. "I have never been good at dealing with people," she admits. She's happiest with her plants and her books. (She is a terrific fan of Virginia Woolf.) In fact, she doesn't even bother learning the names of the girls who will be helping her tend the garden at Mosel. Instead, with the exception of one girl, she names them after varieties of potatoes.
The estate is also home to a small group of Canadian soldiers waiting for their marching orders. Their leader, a handsome soldier named Raley, is cultivated and intelligent, but has also been deeply affected by the war and the loss of one particular friend.
The days at Mosel are spent trying to restore the gardens, which have been left largely untended since the beginning of the war, when the men who once gardened there went off to fight.
This is a story about lost things. Gwen discovers a series of lost gardens on the estate, but the garden metaphor extends well beyond that. What Gwen really learns is how her own capacity to open her heart expands her world in ways both beautiful and heartbreaking.
"The thing about gardens is that everyone thinks they go on growing, that in winter they sleep and in spring they rise. But it's more that they die and return, die and return," Gwen remarks.
The Lost Garden is a beautiful book. Humphreys began her literary career as a poet and it shows: her prose is luminous.
Booklist called it "beautifully crafted and bittersweet...[Humphreys] writes with a poetic sensibility, positing that even in the midst of despair, the land (and the heart) renews itself."
This is a novel that should inspire gardeners and lovers, and those who aspire to be both.