The Garden Against Time: In Search of a Common Paradise by Olivia Laing - review by Gillian Tindall

Gillian Tindall

Everyday Edens

The Garden Against Time: In Search of a Common Paradise

By

Picador 336pp £20
 

It feels ungrateful to begin a review of this admirably wide-ranging and thoughtful book with a complaint, but it is one the publisher should have forestalled, since desirable accompaniments to a work of non-fiction are usually the publisher’s province. So, why no index, at least of the proper names of plants and humans that are mentioned? And, more fundamentally, why no simple ground plan of the abandoned Suffolk garden that lies at the heart of the book, and whose discovery and revival have evidently become the major shared achievement in the lives of Olivia Laing and her husband? She supplies an evocative description: ‘The entire plot was just under a third of an acre, but it felt much larger because it had been so cunningly divided … that you could never see the entirety at once, but continually passed through doorways and arches into secretive new spaces.’ It would be useful for the reader to have a slightly more coherent concept of the place. It is distracting never to know quite where you are.

But perhaps I have got this wrong. Perhaps the odd combination of sections that are as filled with precise flower and tree names as a newspaper’s gardening page and passages that are entirely about bygone people associated with gardens is a device to present this third of an acre as something more than a segment of English earth. Early on we learn, ‘Paradise gardens emerged in Persia six centuries before the birth of Christ … they must be enclosed and include the element of water.’ In the Avestan language of ancient Persia, it transpires, the word ‘paradise’ meant just a walled garden. After migrating into other languages, including the Greek of the Old Testament, it acquired connotations of both prelapsarian innocence and eternal life: ‘Hell below, paradise above, and somewhere off to the side the Garden of Eden.’

From here, it is but a short step to the writings of Andrew Marvell – ‘Stumbling on melons as I pass/Ensnar’d with flow’rs, I fall on grass’ – and thence to his contemporary, the deeply intellectual and idealistic Milton of Paradise Lost, whom Marvell himself may have saved from execution

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