Does life right now seem a sort of “Choose Your Own Anxiety” game? Spin the arrow inside one’s brain, and settle on worries about the spread of coronavirus or the (now diminished) smorgasbord of candidates confusing efforts to defeat the incumbent. And then, another set of frets (rightly louder) provide real-life concerns like children or work or health – things one might do something about.
I try and interrupt the head spin with books. So I was glad to get Penelope Lively’s new book, “Life in the Garden.” I have been looking forward to it – a memoir by a favorite writer structured around gardens – her own and literary. Describing her tiny London garden now, and the limitations imposed by a chronic back problem, she says, “This is old-age gardening, and like all other aspects of old age, it creeps up on you, and has to be faced down and dealt with.”
In my favorite parts of this book (aside from the beautiful cover and black and white illustrations inside) Lively considers “gardening as an element of fiction.” She writes, “This is a book in which fictional gardens act as prompts for consideration of what gardens and gardening have been for us, over time.”
And I loved it that she reminded me of books I hadn’t read including her own novel, “Consequences,” a perfect book for escaping the present. Beginning just before the hardships and tragedies of World War II, it opens with a romance that echoes through generations. It ends in this century with changes wrought by modernity and a satisfying linking of the generations.
I really care about Lively’s characters – and relish their observations (which seem like Lively’s voice). On books in a library: “they offer a point of view, they offer many conflicting points of view, they provoke thought, they provoke irritation and admiration and speculation.” A library would be noisy, “with a deep collective growl coming from the core collection…, and the bleats and cries of new opinion, new fashion, new style.”
Such a pleasure to read this book, and to surface and realize that a daffodil, ignoring our national discontent, blooms in my tiny garden.