Despite its strong focus on gardeners from the upper classes, Penelope Lively’s horticultural memoir is a book to treasure
When a really good book comes along, one of the things it does is to draw attention to the absence of such a book on your shelves before it arrived. I hadn’t really thought much about the state of the once venerable art of garden writing until I read Life in the Garden. It brought home to me how few recent gardening books come anywhere close to its style, intelligence and depth. I enjoyed Dan Pearson’s A Year in the Garden; Alys Fowler is always worth reading; I couldn’t care less about Monty Don’s gormless retrievers, but he does write stylish if faintly patrician prose when describing Longmeadow. Other than these worthy exceptions, garden books have become, as Penelope Lively herself points out, nothing more than “vehicles for lavish photography”.
Lively, now in her 80s, is the only author to have won both the Booker, for Moon Tiger in 1987, and the Carnegie medal for children’s fiction, for The Ghost of Thomas Kempe in 1973. She has continued to write since her string of hits in the 1980s; 2009’s Family Album was a memorably sharp novel of middle-class manners and last year’s collection of short stories, The Purple Swamp Hen, garnered excellent reviews. In Life in the Garden, she has given us something quite new; rich and unusual, this is a book to treasure, as beautiful on the inside as its gorgeous cover and endpapers (all by the celebrated illustrator Katie Scott).
Our gardens assert a powerful hold; they are reflections of our secret selves, places of memory and nostalgia