It's England, 1941, and London is being destroyed by the Blitz. Gwen Davis, our narrator and protagonist, is a 35 year old horticulturist. Solitary and better with plants than she is with people, Gwen nevertheless volunteers to move to an estate in the Devon countryside to lead a team of young women in growing crops for the war effort. There she finds herself overwhelmed at first by her inadequacy and lack of leadership. With time, her relationship with Jane, a young women waiting for her fiance missing in action, who loves too much and passionately and is a bit too wild, and with Raley, a Canadian soldier posted with the rest of his regiment in the house nearby, waiting to be deployed, will change her forever. She also finds a lost garden, hidden on the estate and take it upon herself to restore it and discover the love story it seems to tell, a story which, in a way, will become her own.
I loved Gwen from the start. Shy, solitaty, unsure of herself except when it comes to her knowledge of plants, she writes letter to Virginia Woolf in her head, and puts the volumes of The Genus Rosa (an encyclopedia of all the roses known to man) on her body when she lies in bed to calm herself. She grows and learns about love and loss and coming to terms with ones past and fear of intimacy. This novel is mostly about loss and love which are almost the same thing when you live in times of war. It deals with the fear of the soldiers about to leave, the fear of the ones left behing, the loss of home and family, and the things we cling to in an effort to make sense of things that just don't. But mostly, though, it was so brillantly and beautifully written. I love Helen Humphreys' prose, poetic and fluid, with moments of such intense beauty and truth at times. Sure sometimes it might have been a bit cheesy, but I never minded. It swept me up from the first page, and even though it lulled a bit in the middle, I still didn't want to stop reading. It wasn't a long novel at all, not even 200 pages, but it felt utterly complete, and still open to so much more. I borrowed this book from the library, but I think I'll buy it for myself so I can reread it as much as I want.
I'll finished with a quote from the very beginning of the book which I think sets the tone beautifully and made me want to just keep reading
But what is love if not instant recognition? A moment of being truly equal to something. What I recognized in this place, from the moment I arrived here, was something within myself that I didn't even know was there. Something under the skin, in the blood. A pulse of familiarity. The wild, lovely clutter of London. 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. I have leaned over the stone balustrade of the Embankment in the dark, the true dark now of the blackouts when even starlight is an act of treachery. In blacked-out London, people, once familiar with the city, bump along the streets, fumbling from building to building as though blind. But I have stood beside the Thames and felt it there, twining beneath my feet like a root. But this is what can no longer be trusted. Everyday the landscape is radically altered. House become holes. Solids become spaces. Anything can dissapear overnight. How can love survive this fact?