The Lost Garden

The Lost Garden

by Helen Humphreys

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Leaving London to grow food for the war effort, Gwen discovers a mysterious lost garden and the story of a love that becomes her own.

This word-perfect, heartbreaking novel is set in early 1941 in Britain when the war seems endless and, perhaps, hopeless. London is on fire from the Blitz, and a young woman gardener named Gwen Davis flees from the burning city for the Devon countryside. She has volunteered for the Land Army, and is to be in charge of a group of young girls who will be trained to plant food crops on an old country estate where the gardens have fallen into ruin. Also on the estate, waiting to be posted, is a regiment of Canadian soldiers. For three months, the young women and men will form attachments, living in a temporary rural escape. No one will be more changed by the stay than Gwen. She will inspire the girls to restore the estate gardens, fall in love with a soldier, find her first deep friendship, and bring a lost garden, created for a great love, back to life. While doing so, she will finally come to know herself and a life worth living.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393340938
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 10/17/2003
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 9,454
File size: 412 KB

About the Author

Helen Humphreys, a poet and novelist, is the author of The Lost Garden, Afterimage, Leaving Earth, and Coventry. She lives in Kingston, Ontario.

Read an Excerpt


What can I say about love? You might see me sitting in this taxi, bound for Paddington Station—a thirty-five-year-old woman with plain features—and you would think that I could not know anything of love. But I am leaving London because of love.

I wasn't born in the city, have only lived here for the past ten years, since I left gardening college and came to work at the Royal Horticultural Society. 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. Every day the landscape is radically altered. Houses become holes. Solids become spaces. Anything can disappear overnight. How can love survive this fact?

The streets are almost empty. I look up as we drive along the Vauxhall Bridge Road and from between two buildings I see a flicker of green that leads to Vincent Square and the stone face of the Royal Horticultural Society looking down into the Westminster Play Ground. Only yesterday I was there in my life, hurrying back from lunch with Roy Peake. At the corner of the square a Canadian soldier said goodbye to his girl. "So long, sweetheart." I liked the jaunty ring of it. I had been walking up the steps of the Royal Horticultural Society, listening to Roy Peake prattle on about his "unknown pear." I think he is secretly hoping he won't be able to identify it so he can name it after himself. Peake's Pear. I have to admit it does sound right. Certain. The stumble of p's like two perfect, companionable, musical notes.

Peake's Pear. I was thinking this, treading the grey stone steps back to my office, when the voice called from along the square with such confidence I turned right around. I am always envious of confidence. This is why I was first drawn to Roy Peake. He spoke so passionately one day about old local apples, standing in my office doorway, holding an "Orange Goff" in one hand and a "Pigeon's Heart" in the other. This was back when his interests were more varied, before the eternal days of the "unknown pear."

Can words go straight to the heart? Is this possible? Can words be as direct as the scent of roses? A man calls from a street corner and I turn my head to the voice as I would turn to the fragrance of a climbing rose, tangled through an arbour.

I have said my farewells to my fellow boarders at Mrs. Royce's house on Denbigh Street. I have said my farewells and felt nothing. In the two years I lived there I did not befriend any of them, and even though Mr. Gregory tried to make me like him, I never did. Aside from those I worked with, I have no one else to say goodbye to; but now, as I drive away from where I've lived, I feel unbearably sad. There is the street where a magnificent cherry tree grows. I will miss it flowering this year. I will likely never see it again.

I look through the taxi window, unable to not watch the familiar streets reel away from me. The wind sways the barrage balloons tethered above the buildings, and they lean the same way, like boats swinging with the tide, at anchor in the harbour.

Most of the buildings themselves are padded with sandbags around the base. Windows are criss-crossed with strips of gummed paper—a pathetic attempt to keep the glass intact when the blasts hit. But there are more windows gone than not. I have walked by restaurants and public houses, their windows shattered into the street and the patrons eating dinner or standing up at the bar with a pint, as though this is a perfectly ordinary occurrence, as though there have never been windows in this, their local establishment.

There are Air Raid Shelter placards on most shop windows and buildings. There are queues of children outside the underground stations in the mornings, waiting to secure a space for that evening's shelter.

I know how to judge the relative distance of an exploding bomb. Those far enough away not to inflict any personal damage make a dull, crumpled sound, like that from a collision between an automobile and a lamppost. The bombs the Germans drop that are close enough to kill emit a strangled whistle, not unlike that of a sort of huge, maniacal teakettle.

I cannot reconcile myself to these changes. I cannot continue adapting to the destruction of the city. London is burning now. In January, eight of the city churches and the Guildhall were destroyed by fire. I could see the smoke from my boarding-house bedroom, swaying against the night sky. I could see the red blossoms of fire blooming along the rooftops.

The taxi winds its way towards the station. Past a row of terraced houses, one suddenly gone out of the middle. Children already clambering over the pile of bricks someone's home has become. An accordion of staircase poking out of the top of the rubble. A flag of torn curtain fluttering from under a window frame. A looking-glass hanging crookedly on the lone remaining wall. In the distance I can hear the wail of approaching aid.

There's something indecent about glimpsing someone's private space after a midnight bomb has shattered it. Flash of wallpaper. The wind shuffing the pages of an open book. All that was not meant for us to see, suddenly all there is to see. Just as the taxi pulls away from this crater of rubble, I see the hand. It pokes out from a pile of broken bricks, fingers curled slightly as though it has just thrown a ball and is waiting to catch it as it falls from the sky. A child's hand. I see the sleeve of fabric still attached, and then the taxi is past.

I do not know how to reconcile myself to useless random death. I do not know how to assimilate this much brutal change, or how to relearn this landscape that was once so familiar to me and is now different every day. I cannot find my way back to my life when all my known landmarks are being removed. Last week I even became lost in the corner of Bloomsbury where I lived before I moved to Mrs. Royce's on Denbigh Street at the beginning of the war, to be closer to my office. I was looking for my usual marker that determined where to turn, a four-storey brick house on the corner of a square. The house had become, since last I'd been there, a small hill of brick dust and broken glass.

This is what I know about love. That it is tested every day, and what is not renewed is lost. One chooses either to care more or to care less. Once the choice is to care less, then there is no stopping the momentum of goodbye. Each loved thing slips away. There is no stopping it.

We have arrived at Paddington. The sun shivers along the glass in the station roof.

So long, sweetheart.

Copyright © 2002 Helen Humphries. All rights reserved.

What People are Saying About This

Rosellen Brown

Those who, as children, loved The Secret Garden will hear its echo in The Lost Garden....[D]elicate, moving.

Lisa Michaels

Humphreys has a poet's eye, and the story is full of startling images that linger in the mind.

Nancy Goodwin

This is a book to read again and again. —Nancy Goodwin, author of A Year in our Gardens

Customer Reviews

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The Lost Garden 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is amazing. It's poetry in prose form. It is one of my top 3 novels that I've ever read. She is an astounding writer and I will read anything she writes. This novel is about intimacy and the real world which illustrates every day our stories of love. This is an amazing, amazing novel.
Madaleine on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
While this book was interesting to me from a history perspective, I think it would be even more interesting to someone who also enjoyed growing flowers and creating flower gardens.
Eliz12 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Beautifully written book with compelling characters. But I was deeply disappointed by the answers (or lack thereof) to all the mysteries and complications.
-Cee- on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A hauntingly beautiful book. Even though I read it slowly, it needs to be re-read. And when I do, I suspect my rating will go higher. This little book is packed solid... so much emotional and deep pondering on the connection of spirits over time, loving, longing and loss. Absolutely heartbreaking and hopeful. The main character, Gwen, begins as a young woman who is confused about life and finding love in the midst of a war torn England. Throughout the novel, she searches for comfort and messages in a hidden and secret garden planned and nurtured by an unknown "ghost" of the past. Gwen learns about love in strange and powerful ways. By the closing pages of this poetically written book, she is mature, accepting and at peace in a profound way.Gwen ponders on writers and writing:"When a writer writes, it's as if she holds the sides of her chest apart, exposes her beating heart. And even though everything wants to heal, to close over and protect the heart, the writer must keep it bare, exposed ... The heart is a river. The act of writing is the moving water that holds the banks apart, keeps the muscle of words flexing so that the reader can be carried along by this movement. To be given space and the chance to leave one's earthly world. Is there any greater freedom than this?"
AJBraithwaite on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The main character was well-drawn and believable and the backdrop of WWII was realistic. I wasn't so convinced by the horticulture: the book was a bit too self-consciously rooted in the literary world rather than the soil.
brenzi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Spare poetic prose coupled with a compelling storyline make this short novel about friendship, love, loss and longing a lovely gem that tells a story about British women at the cusp of WWII. As the story opens in 1941, Gwen Davis has arrived from the Horticultural Society in London to a vacated estate in Devon to lead a group of volunteer women known as the Women¿s Land Army in the production of potatoes for the war effort. She is clueless as to how to make these young women do what she needs them to do. It is only with the help of one of the young women, Jane, and a Canadian soldier, whose regiment is quartered at the estate¿s main house, that she is finally able to achieve her goal. Along the way, she dedicates herself also to restoring the elaborate gardens that surround the estate to their former glory and discovers that these gardens hold within their rows a dark secret that goes back to the years of WWI and the gardeners who were a part of the staff of this once wealthy estate.Making connections between the past and the present and between her life and the life of a character in Virginia Woolf¿s To the Lighthouse makes this a book written on many levels and opening itself up to much interpretation. It¿s brilliantly conceived and poetically written:¿This is what I know about love. That it is tested every day, and what is not renewed is lost. One chooses either to care more or to care less. Once the choice is to care less, then there is no stopping the momentum of good-bye. Each loved thing slips away. There is no stopping it.¿ (Page 7)That summer in Devon will open Gwen¿s eye¿s to a new interpretation of love. Highly recommended.
Cariola on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Since I first discovered her wonderful little collection of stories The Frozen Thames, Helen Humphreys has become one of my favorite writers, and this novel does not disappoint. Like the beautiful Coventry, The Lost Garden is set in World War II England and explores the relationships among those trying to survive and to do their part for the war effort. Horticulturist Gwen Davis, a bit of a loner, leaves London after the death of her estranged mother, arriving in Devon to lead a group of Land Girls in planting potatoes. Gwen finds herself challenged by her leadership role, the neglected grounds of the estate, and the presence of a unit of Canadian soldiers preparing to ship out. She takes refuge in a mysterious hidden garden that someone has sectioned into a Garden of Longing, a Garden of Loss, and a Garden of Faith--aspects that represent Gwen's emotional journey during her months at Mosel.Humphreys's quiet, spare, almost poetic style is perfectly suited to her gentle exploration of her characters' hearts and minds. Although The Lost Garden doesn't quite match up to the two novels mentioned above, it is nevertheless a lovely work, well worth a reader's time.
bkwurm on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A moving novel set in WWII England. This tells the story of Gwen, a gardener with the British Horticulture Society who has left London for the British countryside to lend her earthy skills to the war effort. By working with a group of younger girls (whom she refers to as varieties of potatoes, rather than by name), befriending a grieving Army officer, and discovering a secret garden of longing, loss and Faith, she explores her own longings, connects with the world around her, and even falls in love.Helen Humphreys was a surprise and a delight to me. Her prose is beautiful, and her knowledge of history and horticulture was thorough and woven expertly into the story without being the slightest bit heavy handed. The tone of the book is melancholy, but manages to be moving and inspiring rather than depressing. My only regret at the end of the book was that it had to end at all.
cookbookkid on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Intriguing story. Women in London in the midst of WWII leaves the city to work with a group of girls growing potatos for the war effort. Main character finds herself in the garden.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I had to read this novel for an English class, and I found it absolutly amazing. The Lost Garden is a thought provoking novel that is full of emotion. It is realistic and gives the reader an insight to life during the War. Gwen is a character that everyone can relate to. Remember to grab the Kleenex when you read this one.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Miss Humphreys understands the human need of loving and to be love. The Lost Garden will surely touchs the heart of anyone who reads it.