A Garden of Earthly Delights, Joyce Carol Oates

A Garden of Earthly DelightsJoyce Carol Oates, is not just a good writer, she is among America’s greatest, up there with Faulkner and Dreiser and Fitzgerald and Hemingway. A Garden of Earthly Delights is the first book in her Wonderland Quartet which explores our American class struggle; our values, our culture, our dreams. Published in 1966, it’s set in the depression era. Titled after Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych of the same name, this garden is the Garden of Eden, our American Eden where anything is possible and everything exacts a price.

Clara Walpole is the child of Kentucky migrant farm workers. She’s born into violence and poverty. Early on she realizes her beauty is a ticket out. She has no idea where she’s going, she just knows, at the age of fifteen, she’s got to get out.

Clara is an unforgettable heroine, but throughout the novel she’s tied to and dependent on the men in her life. Part I is Carlton, her father, Part II, Lowry, her lover, and Part III, Swan her son. Her most life-changing act was to seduce Curt Revere and convince him he was the father of her child. That took a lot of street smarts for an uneducated teenage girl. She was well aware of what she had done.

“Today she changed the way her life was going and it was no accident.”

Moving by deceit from one class to another left Clara skittish for the rest of her life. Her garden calmed her down.

“It was a large garden for just a woman to handle, though Revere and Swan could help her. But it was her garden and it bothered her to have someone else working in it. A year ago, before his marriage, Revere’s cousin Judd had put in some large-petaled roses for Clara, and in a way she had minded even that – though she had not let on. Now, since his marriage, Judd never came to see her. His wife would not allow it. So it was Clara’s garden and no one else’s and when her eyes moved from plant to plant, pausing at each dusty familiar flower and occasional insects she’d flick off with an angry snap of her fingers, a feeling of accomplishment rose up in her. The garden was as much of the world as she wanted because it was all that she could handle, being just Clara, and it was beautiful.”

As Revere’s wealthy wife, Clara was exposed to new things. They registered but she was most comfortable with what would have made her child-self happy and what would have brought a smile to the face of her long dead mother. The random times when Clara was alone and could contemplate the world surrounding her in her garden, she was the most at peace.

“At Revere’s great-aunt’s house in Hamilton Clara had seen what a formal garden was, such precision, symmetry, the way colors were repeated and related, but her garden was nothing like that. Clara’s garden was one that Pearl would have liked, Clara thought. Just to walk around in it, maybe to sit in it, in a chair. Sit, and dream. Where it wasn’t just kneeling and stooping and picking desperate to fill baskets for a few pennies each. And you the owner of the garden, with a farmhand to help you.”


The Forgotten Garden, Kate Morton

The Forgotten Garden

A four-year-old girl is left alone on a ship bound from England to Australia, The year is 1913. Somehow she survives the voyage and arrives at Maryborough port with a little white suitcase containing a beautiful book of fairy tales. The dockmaster takes her home to his wife who has just suffered another miscarriage. No inquiries are made after the little girl so they name her Nell and lovingly treat her as their own. On her twenty-first birthday Nell is told she is a foundling. This fairy tale-esque unveiling uproots her trust in everyone and her sense of self.

You can lose yourself in this Kate Morton mystery. It spans generations; it winds through family histories, hidden for years only to be discovered anew by later generations. The break-your-heart events confront characters years after those hurt have passed away. Morton’s strong suite is her lyrical writing. What is not so strong is the believability of the characters’ actions. Why they do what they do is open to question, but Morton still concocts a spellbinding story.

Nell’s granddaughter, Cassandra, in 2005, finds that, upon Nell’s death, she has inherited a cottage in Cornwall. Here she reacts to seeing the cottage garden for the first time.

“There was something about the garden that reminded her of Nell’s backyard in Brisbane. Not the plants so much as the mood. As long as Cassandra could remember, Nell’s yard had been a jumble of cottage plants, herbs and brightly colored annuals. Little concrete paths winding their way through the growth. So different from the other suburban backyards, with their stretches of sunburned grass and the occasional thirsty rosebushes inside white-painted car tires….It was a garden, a walled garden. Overgrown but with beautiful bones visible still. Someone had cared for this garden once. The remains of two paths snaked back and forth, intertwined like the lacing on an Irish dancing shoe. Fruit trees had been espaliered around the sides, and wires zigzagged from the top of one wall to the top of another. Hungry wisteria branches had woven themselves around to form a sort of canopy.”

There are shades of The Secret Garden in this book. Frances Hodgson Burnett makes a guest appearance at a garden party on the estate.

The narrative flips back and forth from the bizarre backstory of Nell’s mother and grandmother and Nell’s search for her birth parents in the 1970’s to Cassandra’s continuation of the search in 2005 and her confrontation with her own demons. There is a lot to keep track of in this beautifully written history of a family that seems to have suffered more than its share of tragedy.


“The Unicorn in the Garden.” James Thurber

the unicorn in the gardenWhen I told my friend Molly I was blogging on garden-themed fiction, she said, are you going to include “The Unicorn in the Garden”? I said, I’ve never heard of it. You must read it, she said.  So I did, all 535 words of it.

It’s a fable with fairy tale elements set in a garden but is not about gardens. It’s about two people, a married couple. They don’t see eye to eye which leads them to be not so happy together. It’s worth noting that Thurber was going through a divorce at the time. It was published in The New Yorker magazine in 1939.

In the manner of fairy tales it begins…

“Once upon a sunny morning a man who sat in a breakfast nook looked up from his scrambled eggs to see a white unicorn with a golden horn quietly cropping the roses in the garden.”

Thurber is known for his cartoons and his humor. In the case of “The Unicorn in the Garden,” besides his distinctive line illustration and his humor, there is a clear, simply told moral to the fable.

“Don’t count your boobies until they are hatched.”


The Aspern Papers, Henry James

The Aspern PapersHenry James’ ornate style can be a difficult read. A  sentence can have so many twists and turns that by the end it’s hard to remember the beginning. But his rich prose, his  complex characters and his story development are worth the time. The Aspern Papers, a novella of 80 pages, is one of his best.

An unnamed narrator, a literary critic, tells the tale in first person.  He’s obsessed with a long dead Romantic poet, Jeffrey Aspern. When he finds out Aspern’s mistress, Juliana Bordereau, now a wizened old woman, is living in gentile poverty with her niece, Tina Bordereau, in their decaying Venetian palazzo, his plot is hatched.

He thinks Juliana must have papers, letters, personal effects of the poet. Through her niece he worms his way into her life by posing as a writer in search of lodging with a view of a garden. To Miss Tina he says:

“I ‘m afraid you’ll think me horribly intrusive, but you know I must have a garden – upon my honour I must!”

Miss Tina looks vaguely confused, so he goes on.

“Isn’t it a luxury, precisely? That’s why, intending to be in Venice some weeks, possibly all summer, and having some literary work, some reading and writing to do, so that I must be quiet and yet if possible a great deal in the open air – that’s why I’ve felt a garden to be really indispensable. I appeal to your own experience,” I went on with as sociable a smile as I could risk, “Now can’t I look at yours?”

He is not above excessive begging.

“I’ve looked at furnished rooms all over the place, and it seems impossible to find any with a garden attached. Naturally in a place like Venice gardens are rare. It’s absurd if you like, for a man, but I can’t live without flowers.”

Why don’t you look somewhere else where there are many gardens, she asks? That’s just the thing, he tells her, a garden in the sea is so spectacular.  He promises to bring the rundown garden back to life.

“I’ll work without wages; or rather I’ll put in a gardener. You shall have the sweetest flowers in Venice.”

So engrossed in his quest, our narrator fails to grow out of his self-flattery and self-absorption. He cannot fathom what the two women might want and he clearly doesn’t care.

“I made a point of spending as much time as possible in the garden, to justify the picture I had originally given of my horticultural passion. And I not only spent time, but (hang it, as I said) spent precious money. As soon as I had got my rooms arranged and could give the question proper thought I surveyed the place with a clever expert and made terms for having it put in order. I was sorry to do this, for personally I liked it better as it was, with its weeds and its wild rich tangle, its sweet characteristic Venetian shabbiness, I had to be consistent, to keep my promise that I would smother the house in flowers. Moreover I clung to the fond fancy that by flowers I should make my way – I should succeed by big nosegays. I would batter the old women with lilies – I would bombard their citadel with roses. Their door would have to yield to the pressure when a mound of fragrance should be heaped against it.”

Miss Juliana he finds is a cunning, money-hungry old crone.  He judges Miss Tina rather dim-witted.

In the tell-all celebrity culture of today, James’ moral question of what is too personal for disclosure to the public seems old-fashioned. A case could be made that the narrator is the stalker of a dead man and Juliana and Tina are the guardians of his personal story. It’s a game of cat and mouse. The narrator is blinded by his self-importance and self-deception. Foolishly he underestimates his formidable foes. In the meantime he has a keen appreciation of the nuances of the Venetian summer.

“One evening about the middle of July I came in earlier than usual – I forget what chance had led to this – and instead of going up to my quarters made my way to the garden. The temperature was very high; it was such a night as one would gladly have spent in the open air. And I was in no hurry to go to bed. I had floated home in my gondola, listening to the slow splash of the oar in the dark narrow canals, and now the only thought that occupied me was that it would be good to recline at one’s length in the fragrant darkness on a garden bench. The odour of the canal was doubtless at the bottom of that aspiration, and the breath of the garden, as I entered it, gave consistency to my purpose. It was delicious – just such an air as must have trembled with Romeo’s vows when he stood among the thick flowers and raised his arms to his mistress’s balcony.”

Yes, James is worth the read.


The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan Eng

The Garden of Evening Mists2This is a beautiful, haunting novel set in an unfortunate time: the World War II invasion by Japan of the Malay Peninsula and the after-war battles between the British colonial government and the communist guerrillas. It’s the backdrop for a love story, a mystery story and a story of inhuman cruelty.

Teoh Yun Ling is seventeen when she and her older sister are captured by the Japanese and sent to an internment camp as “guests of the Emperor.” Yun Hong, the older sister is beautiful and so selected to be a “comfort woman” for the soldiers. Yun Ling is the only prisoner to survive the camp when the Japanese realize the coming defeat and obliterate it.

Ling is an older woman when she is diagnosed with neurological aphasia that will take away her memory and her ability to communicate. She is faced with trying to remember, record and understand happenings that she has spent her life trying to forget. Why was she the only one to survive? Ling describes her fleeting memory.

“Memory is like patches of sunlight in an overcast valley, shifting with the movement of the clouds. Now and then the light will fall on a particular point in time, illuminating it for a moment before the wind seals up the gap, and the world is in shadows again.”

Hong was an artist enchanted by Japanese gardens. The sisters withstood the tyranny of slave life by planning the Japanese garden they would create when the war ended. Ling vowed to create that garden to commemorate her sister. She finds Nakamura Aritomo, a former gardener to the Emperor, who has created a traditional Japanese garden called Yugiri (garden of evening mists) in rural Malaya. He refuses to create a garden for her sister, but allows her to work for him to learn to create the garden herself.

Disfigured and weakened in the camp, Ling regains physical strength in the years she toils for Aritomo. She also digests the principles of Japanese gardening.

“Outside, the mountains have been drawn into the garden, becoming a part of it. Aritomo was a master of shakkei, the art of Borrowed Scenery, taking elements and views from outside a garden and making them integral to his creation.”

After endless discussions with the master, Ling can clearly articulate and defend the art of Japanese gardening.

“The garden has to reach inside you. It should change your heart, sadden it, uplift it. It has to make you appreciate the impermanence of everything in life… That point in time just as the last leaf is about to drop, as the remaining petal is about to fall; that moment captures everything beautiful and sorrowful about life, ‘Mono no aware,’ the Japanese call it… We’re all dying.”

Again, she expressively defends the centuries-old art to an old friend who has doubts.

“Gardens like his are designed to manipulate your emotions. I find that dishonest.”

“Is it?” I fired back. “The same can be said of any work of art, any piece of literature or music.” I had worked extremely hard in the garden, and to hear someone denigrating it angered me. “If you weren’t so stupid you’d see that your emotions are not being manipulated – they’re being awakened to something higher, something timeless. Every step you take inside Yugiri is meant to open your mind, to lead you to the heart of a contemplative state.”

There are many secrets in this story that eventually reveal themselves through Ling’s slowly failing mind. What was the reason the Emperor’s gardener was banished to Malaya and why did he remain there so many years after the war’s end? What was the reason he tattooed her back and why did he one day disappear into the rain forest? Ling finally understands and does what she has to do even as she is losing herself.

“Before me lies a voyage of a million miles, and memory is the moonlight I will borrow to illuminate my way.”

The Garden of Evening MistsThis elegantly written work has much to say about the human condition. Even though set in a remote time and place, it has enormous relevance in any uncertain time and provides clues to the universal passion for gardening.