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The Lost Garden

by Helen Humphreys

In 1941, plain, 35-year-old Gwen Davis leaves her London, England, horticultural duties analyzing diseased parsnips to supervise a band of Land Girls who will grow vegetables on a country estate for the war effort. Gwen loves London, gardens, and the work of Virginia Woolf, whom she believes she once spotted walking in the city. When it comes to people, however, she is more fearful than fond, socially frozen by a view of herself as unattractive and unlovable.

As Gwen travels by train to her new crop-growing post, she spots a headline saying that Virginia Woolf has gone missing. In fact Virginia Woolf is dead, having drowned herself, but both she and her fiction, mainly Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse, remain much on Gwen’s mind throughout a novel that deliberately reverberates with Woolfish content and style.

Arriving at the estate, Gwen meets Jane, a feisty and appealing Land Girl with a fiancé missing in action and the leadership qualities that Gwen lacks, and Raley, a Canadian officer to whom Gwen is attracted. She also finds, tucked within estate hedges, an overgrown garden planted around the time of the First World War. The garden contains codes and clues, Gwen believes, to understanding a version of love and acceptance that she can live with.

Spending her time unravelling the messages of the garden behind its protective hedges and learning human attachment beyond them, Gwen comes quietly to bloom herself, becoming one of the several faces and aspects of love that are lost, found, reshaped, and transformed in this slender, precisely written work. The Lost Garden is a novel about various objects and layers and dimensions of love. Like love, the novel is not quite definable and has moments of awkwardness or obviousness, but taken as a whole, is delicate and ambitious and, happily, even subtly comic on occasion.