This beautiful, upbeat book was published in June this year and I picked it up following a recommendation on the Good Housekeeping books page, a place where I quite often find some enjoyable reads.
It’s a story which explores friendship, bereavement, family, reconciliation, love and the redemptive power of gardening in a joyfully original way.
We’re in Stoke Newington, a place I know reasonably well because I often review shows at the Tower Theatre there. Imagine two houses which, for historical reasons share a garden. When Prem and Maya, move in to rent one of them in the 1970s, they find Alma who owns the other house very daunting but gradually things change. Interspersed with this is another story set in 2018/19 in which two gay men, Winston and Lewis are renting and an irritable single mother Bernice lives next door with her son. All of them, one way and another, become involved with the garden.
Adams slowly interweaves her stories. There is an old chair in the garden which Prem made 30 years earlier, for example. For a long time we wonder where Prem and Maya’s daughter who becomes a quasi-grandchild to Alma is now and, for that matter, where Maya went and what she did. The garden is overgrown until Winston, deeply troubled by the death of his mother with which he has never come to terms, starts to work on it assisted by Bernice’s son Sebastian. The garden is, in effect, a metaphor for creating new life and finding ways of moving on. I love the idea of Bernice buying Winston a banana tree to remind him of home and his mother, but pretending that it’s nothing because she got it in a sale.
Then there’s the community around them – Erol, the local shopkeeper whose business has been taken over by his son Sal and Sal’s wife Angela by the time Winston, Lewis and Bernice get there. Meanwhile, Bob, over the road, is a good friend who has always carried a torch for Alma. All these people are so sensitively and convincingly drawn that you could reach out and touch them. They’re all good folk, too. There are no “villains” in this novel. Yes, some of them sometimes behave badly because they’re worried, frightened, sad or whatever but they’re all likeable – even Bernice’s “difficult” ex, Simon is doing his best. And there’s something warm and life-affirming about that.
This book is not particularly “literary” and certainly wouldn’t win the Booker prize but it’s delightful, moving, poignant and thoughtful which, today, is quite enough for me. I read the final pages, while stationary in an hours long traffic jam on the Blackwall Tunnel approach and was moved to tears so it proved a wonderful escape in a pretty tiresome situation.
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: The Lost Father by Marina Warner