In the Garden; Essays on Nature and Growing

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Review by Hayley Anderton

This is the first of the Daunt Books essay collections that I’ve read and I’m mostly impressed. The quality of the individual essays is universally high and cover aspects of what a garden might be and might mean in ways that might be slightly unexpected. Collectively it’s a strong selection as well, but with the caveat that I found it quite a metrocentric assemblage which I guess is the trade-off for choosing contributors based on the quality of their writing rather than their gardening.

I found this most noticeable in Niellah Arboine’s essay – ‘Putting the Brakes On’ when she talks about the ‘Wellness Generation’ and the mindfulness of gardening and how difficult that can be for millennials to access. Her point that one in eight UK households doesn’t have access to a garden hits home. I’m in the gardenless part of that statistic, but it misses the reality that millennials and beyond outside London, and the handful of similarly expensive parts of the UK where renting is likely to continue long after student days, are buying houses and putting down roots whilst still in their early twenties. 

What they’re not doing is getting jobs in the arts and writing about it, it’s that slight disconnect that niggles me about this anthology – I really think it would have been better with just one or two more essays included which broadened out the perspectives we get. As it is Kerri Ní Dochartaigh ‘Solas, Solace’ becomes a standout not just for the quality of her writing but because she’s writing from the middle of Ireland. Caroline Craig’s ‘Just Call Me Alan’ where she talks about her grandparents Provençal potager is a powerful too.

When I talk about niggles though, they are small because there’s a lot to take onboard here, and it’s worth knowing how younger, city bound, people feel about a life that disconnects them from growing things, especially when so much memory seems bound up in parents and grandparents gardening. There’s also plenty about gardening and identity as part of a diaspora; how what’s grown represents and changes from generation to generation. Do you grow your garden to fit in with your new neighbours, to recall another home, a heritage? So much of gardening is surely about memory and the desire to share memories – how many times does the scent of something, or it’s flavour, carry you back to childhood?

Altogether there’s a lot to recommend this book though, and there’s a lot to be said for choosing writers rather than gardeners to contribute to it. There’s an entry from Nigel Slater, whose style leaves me a little cold, so I’ll freely admit that I’m biased, but the privilege of his position is something I find slightly alienating in a way that I do not with Caroline Craig’s knowledge that one day she will have a share of her family’s land in Provence. Slater is an obvious choice for an anthology like this, and I realise that whilst he was what I was expecting I wouldn’t have got nearly as much out of another book that rounded up these usual suspects. 

There are probably too many personal favourites to mention (ten out of fourteen essays really caught me up, and everything sparked something), but there’s a lot that I’ll go back to re-read – particularly Zing Tsjeng’s ‘A Ghost Story’, and definitely Francesca Wade’s ‘A Common Inheritance’, which along with Kerri Ní Dochartaigh ‘Solas, Solace’ has persuaded me that I want to buy both of their respective books. Like me you might not find this book quite what you expected, but I hope that like me you also find it am enjoyable revelation of ideas and possibilities. 

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Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader.

Various Authors, In The Garden: Essays on Nature And Growing (Daunt Books 2021) 978-1-911547-92-1, 169pp., Paperback

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